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‘For Colored Girls…’ choreopoem continues to resonate more than 40 years later

The cast of "For Colored Girls ..." features Patrese D. McClain (from left), Alexis J. Roston, Leah Casey, Melody Angel, Angelica Katie, Brezill, Melissa DuPrey and AnJi White. | Joe Mazza Photo

Seret Scott’s history with Ntozake Shange’s play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” goes back to the play’s Broadway opening in 1976. Scott was the understudy hired to replace Shange after her three-month run in the show. However, her debut in the play came a whole lot sooner when Shange called in sick the day after opening night.

“Ntozake didn’t have a problem with the show but she didn’t really want to perform in it as much as she wanted to get back to writing,” Scott explains. “I had been hired about five days before and I was still learning the play. So it was a very sudden challenge.”

‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf’
When: To April 14
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis
Tickets: $50-$74
Info: courttheatre.org

Shange coined the word “choreopoem” to describe “For Colored Girls,” which started out as a series of poems and on stage became a series of poetic monologues accompanied by dance and music telling the stories of seven women and their experiences in a racist and sexist society. The Tony Award-nominated play, which ran for nearly two years in New York, was only the second by an African-American woman to reach Broadway after Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Scott now returns to Court Theatre to direct Shange’s groundbreaking work; she previously directed Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” at the Hyde Park theater. She says she is “so happy” to introduce this play, which today is rarely staged, to a new generation of actors and theatergoers.

A trailblazer for other black writers, Shange challenged conventions with her idiosyncratic writing style and searing feminist monologues. She poetically brought the ongoing struggles of black women and girls out into the open.

Each woman in the play is identified only by the color that she wears. Patrese D. McClain, who portrays the Lady in Brown, says performing in Shange’s play feels like “a rite of passage.”

The cast of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” in a scene from the Court Theatre production. | Michael Brosilow Photo

The cast of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” in a scene from the Court Theatre production. | Michael Brosilow Photo

“Sitting in the room with Seret and understanding her first-hand experience with the piece, I really felt like it’s more important than just a performance,” McClain says. “I feel like there is something here that is being passed down to all of us so that we then can pass it down to the artists coming after us.”

Because it was originally written as a poem, Scott feels “the text and the subtext resonate in a certain way and the best way to dramatize it is to let each woman bring herself, her own ideas to the role. Ideas based on what Ntozake has written which is what I find so wonderful.”

McClain says that was a complicated mission for the actresses.

“We have an affinity for the piece and a reverence for the language,” McClain says, adding, “I think that was something the ensemble just had to breathe through in the first weeks of rehearsal. To understand that the language is so universal, so true and we are colored girls and we don’t have to do anything else to it because it stands alone.”

Scott kept in touch with Shange over the years and talked with her about the Court production before the playwright’s death last October. She says Shange was the type of person who always had extraordinary things to say.

As an example, she said she approached Shange about adding a character to the current production, a musician. “She was fine with it. I asked her two things — What color would she represent and what would we call her? She answered without a pause — the rainbow, and Lyric.”

Scott, who grew up in Washington, D.C., remembers writing four-minute plays as a young child: “Always with an intermission,” she says with a laugh. She gave up a distinguished acting career 30 years ago and turned her attention to directing and teaching. The recent death of and old friend, actor/playwright John O’Neal, prompted Scott to recall a life-changing experience that helped set her on this path as an adult.

In the mid-‘60s, she was attending New York University where she was exploring an interest in theater and developing her political views and social awareness. After the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., she felt compelled to do something more. She quit school and joined the Free Southern Theater, a New Orleans-based itinerant ensemble founded by Gilbert Moses, Doris Derby and O’Neal that was an artistic arm of the civil rights movement and presented free productions throughout the South.

“We performed in parking lots and church basements and alongside cotton fields because our audiences were migrants and tenant farmers and sharecroppers,” Scott said. “It was a life-changing experience, and it shaped everything I’m about in the sense that it is the way I think. It helped me understand that theater and the arts in general can change lives, can change minds, can change the world.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.