From 1974 to 1976, Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf” – a genre-busting ensemble work she called a choreopoem – journeyed from a bar outside Berkeley to New York’s Public Theatre and finally onto Broadway, where it ran for almost two years.
Today, it’s more widely read and referenced than performed, but only five months after Shange’s untimely death, the Court Theatre is reviving the work in a stunningly performed production directed by Seret Scott.
Featuring a cycle of poems, combined with music and dance, performed by a group of women characters (seven in the original, eight here) named for colors of the rainbow, the work alternately portrays joy and devastation, covering topics like innocent sexual awakening on the one hand and culturally accepted rape on the other.
It’s a work that remains to this day hard to categorize, although it anticipated and inspired so much that followed – from the popularization of slam poetry and confessional monologues to Terry McMillan’s black female romance novel protagonists, to the contemporary language of self-love, to the poetic dialogue and form-defying qualities of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, not to mention a 2010 Tyler Perry film of the same name – that it also feels familiar.
‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf’
When: Through April 14
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
Run time: 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission
Is it dated? Sure. That’s not due to the references of its time so much as the form. It certainly and appropriately has a ’70s vibe. The piece reflects a moment when the civil rights era met the feminist movement, and when performances could be happenings and not just narratives.
Greek tragedies are dated too, by the way, and that most canonical of Western theatrical forms gets a prominent nod in Courtney O’Neill’s set design, with crumbling arches and a circular playing space right out of Aegean amphitheaters.
With this choice, Scott suggests that the gathered figures don’t so much represent a fanciful spiritual conjuring – “Are we ghouls?” asks Patrese D. McClain’s Lady in Brown in the very first poem – as a Greek chorus, a combined voice infused with common history and concerns.
And the datedness is accompanied by a consistent stream of stories that slap you in the face with contemporary #Metoo relevance, particularly a piece about how easily rape is questioned and even accepted when done by a supposed friend, how the battle continues to undo the perception that “a rapist is always to be a stranger/ to be legitimate/ someone you never saw/ a man wit obvious problems.”
But more than anything, this production makes clear exactly why “for colored girls…” skyrocketed to prominence: Shange’s dramatic sense of language that when performed feels so deeply evocative and true. Read the play, and it’s impressive but distant. Performed here, the language is urgent and real and consistently compelling.
The performances are all terrific, filled with spunky individualism, with particular shout-outs to Melanie Brezill for her energetic depiction of youthful naiveté, Melissa Duprey for combining strength with frustration when she states that “I usedta live in the world/ then I moved to HARLEM/ & my universe is now six blocks,” and Anji White, who has easily the most intense and dramatic monologue about domestic abuse, but also one of the most movingly complex, about a woman who puts on a facade of sexual aggressiveness but cries herself to sleep after her conquests.
In addition to the language, what impresses still is the emotional depth and nuance, a stark sense of how much one has to give up in order to give of oneself. Some of it feels overly melodramatic and expected now – a woman who breaks up with a man by leaving a note on a plant that has thrived due to her tears, or a trio of friends who find sisterhood in a man’s cheating – but there’s also a more abstract and interesting piece, performed with verve by Angelica Katie as the Lady in Green, who claims “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff,” and we soon realize she isn’t talking about possessions but identity.
This work gave voice to that identity like none before, but it isn’t something that stopped or perhaps ever can stop. If anything, “for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf” suggests that finding one’s voice is a never-ending battle, captured with a line that stands out: “…bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma/ I haven’t conquered yet….”
Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.