Top: Lala (Julia Jackson), Margo (Juanita Harris), Bree (Ije Success) and Angie (Britany Nicole Sims). Bottom: Njeri (Brenda Miles). Credit: Robbie Sweeny

Berkeley’s Central Works produces plays no one has ever seen before. Without resorting to theatrical trends, it presents spanking new works by upcoming playwrights so that every show is original, fresh, and not sidelined by any prior “buzz.” The pieces haven’t run in New York or LA; they are first seen here in Berkeley. I love Central Works and go with an open mind and heart to experience the uniqueness of theater. As you would find with any theater company, some plays are more successful than others, but all of them are at least very good. Happily, The Museum Annex, by Mildred Inez Lewis, is one of the winners.

The Museum Annex, Central Works, through Nov. 13

The Museum Annex is a clever, agile, satirical series of short pieces elucidating different Black women’s experiences throughout American history. Some seem just funny, but most have a serious underlying message. The ensemble cast of five very talented actors (Juanita Harris, Julia Jackson, Brenda Miles, Brittany Nicole Sims and Ije Success) first appear as docents to introduce the audience to a metaphoric museum, as though each sequence were an exhibit.

After some early sketches about women’s roles and reactions to slavery and Reconstruction, a 1950s-era skit involves two women who exemplify Ebony Magazine’s then-ideal woman. The two attend a fashion show luncheon wearing light-skinned face masks. They are aghast when a girdle-less heavy-set woman sporting an Afro struts her stuff at the fashion show.

Another funny and memorable sequence is about some southern women mooning over Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and a few other Black leaders they consider sexy. Although they are unwilling to sit in the front of the bus for the cause, they certainly enjoy the view from the front of the church.

The final bit is about a Black woman astronaut who willingly untethers herself from her spaceship to live in another galaxy. Life on Earth is hard. The production ends with the museum docents returning with a short lesson about the dangers of labeling others and being labeled and the importance of defining one’s own life and values.

The title, The Museum Annex, is an homage to The Colored Museum, a severely sardonic 1986 series of 11 “exhibits” written by writer and director George C. Wolfe. It explored and satirized then prominent themes and identities in African American culture. However, familiarity with The Colored Museum is not necessary to enjoy The Museum Annex. A 1991 TV version is viewable on YouTube or those who are curious.

YouTube video

Kudos to playwright Lewis for her brilliant creativity, humor and style. Finding just the right tone was not easy, but Lewis succeeded in entertaining and, at times, educating her audience. Elizabeth Carter’s skilled direction turned the sketches into a cohesive whole. The five cast members, who needed to employ a range of accents, styles, and physical movements, were excellent.

Central Works’ 69th world premiere, The Museum Annex, runs Thursday-Sunday through Nov. 13 at the Berkeley City Club — that magnificent Julia Morgan-designed building at 2315 Durant Ave. The play is in two acts and lasts two hours, with a 10-minute intermission. The theater can seat only about 50 people, so get your tickets early. Fridays through Sundays, tickets are $30-$40. All remaining tickets are available on a sliding scale at noon on the day of the show. For information, extended dates, and tickets, visit the Central Works website.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...