It’s taken more than 45 years for Ntozake Shange’s theatrical evening of narrative and lyrical poetry, dance, and song to return to Broadway’s Booth Theater….and for me finally to understand its cumbersome title.
“for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf “ opens tonight in a glamorous and, in one way, newly inventive production directed and choreographed by Camille A. Brown.
Brown also choreographed a production of the play in 2019 on a more intimate stage at the Public Theater, but that version had a different director, and only two of those seven actresses have moved to the Booth. In her Broadway directorial debut, Brown takes a noticeably bigger and splashier approach. The show now begins with a voiceover recording of Shange (who died in 2018), saying: “Imagine all the stories we could tell about the funny looking lil colored girls, and the sophisticated lil colored girls, and the pretty lil colored girls…the ones just like you!” This leads to an energetic entrance by all seven African American actresses , accompanied by Vogue-style photographs of their faces projected on the arena-sized screens that travel up to the rafters on both sides of the stage.
When it debuted at the Booth to acclaim in 1976, it was only the second work by a Black woman ever to make it to Broadway. It was also the first “choreopoem,” a label that Shange gave to her mix of dance and poetry, which remains unique. If the poetic language may sometimes be too dense and quick for full comprehension, the rhythm always gets you through. It was only after watching this latest production that the title finally made sense to me. I had been reading it like a sentence, and wondering “why, if the rainbow is enough, would they be considering suicide?” But it suddenly struck me that the two phrases are alternative titles— the first reflecting the despair, the second the joys, or at least hopes, of living as a Black woman in America.
These alternatives exist simultaneously, and Shange’s work offers both. This production, though, seems to lean more toward the rainbow of joys.
The seven ladies, each dressed in a different color of the rainbow, dance exuberantly, and delight in the longer narrative poems involving youthful reminiscence. The Lady in Brown (Tendayi Kuumba) recounts a charming story of her infatuation at age eight with Toussaint L’Ouverture, the hero of Haiti, having discovered him in the adult reading room (where she ventured, against the rules, because the children reading room offered “only pioneer girls & magic rabbits & big city white boys.”) She kept Toussaint by her side at all times after that, her invisible friend, until she met a boy her age who was also named Toussaint, Toussaint Jones, who struck her as just as heroic “cept the ol one waz in haiti & this one wid me speakin english & eatin apples.”
There is as much verve in Lady in Blue (Stacey Sargeant) detailing her discovery of “subtle blues,” and the Lady in Yellow (D Woods) recounting her night out to celebrate high school graduation, when she lost her virginity
Lady in Blue: you gave it up in a Buick?
Lady in Yellow: yeah, and honey, it was wonderful
The poems about love are more often tinged with frustration than with outright joy, but occasionally leavened with humor. In one poem, the rainbow ladies one by one imitate men offering lame apologies and excuses. In another, “my love is too,” they take turns saying “my love is too delicate to have thrown back on my face” or “…too beautiful..” or “…too Saturday night…”
Each of them says this in English and also signs this in American Sign Language, led by The Lady in Purple, portrayed by Alexandria Wailes, one of the two holdovers from Off-Broadway, a veteran of Deaf West’s Broadway productions of Spring Awakening and Big River, and a standout in this production.
I find the relatively extensive use of American Sign Language to be the most obvious and most innovative change in this “For Colored Girls…”, and a welcome one. It’s a smart choice for a work that is primarily dance and poetry to employ a language that is arguably itself a mix of the two. Maybe someday directors will routinely incorporate the beauty of ASL throughout their plays, not just in isolated moments.
“For Colored Girls…” also contains poems of pain and shame and anger – a riff on how defenseless legally a woman is if she’s been raped by a “friend”; a story of an abortion; some bitter stories of feeling trapped and failing at love, and, most horribly, a vivid story of domestic abuse that left the audience literally gasping. Some of these feel less in sync with the tone of the production, and also less in line with the current times. There is still of course ugliness in the world, probably more of it, but the focus of our concern has changed. Had Shange been writing this play today, she might have seen fit, for example, to find some way to reflect on the nearly 50 Black women in America killed by police since 2015.
Still, the core of “For Colored Girls” feels as if it could have been put together today. Its ultimate message is uplifting without losing sight of reality:
lady in yellow: we gotta dance to keep from cryin
lady in brown: we gotta dance to keep from dyin
lady in red: so come on
lady in brown: come on
lady in purple & everyone (sign): come on
lady in orange: hold your head like it was ruby sapphire
for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf
At the Booth Theater through August 14, 2022 (Update: now closing May 22, 2022) (2nd Update: After a social media campaign to keep the show going, extended to June 5, 2022)
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Written by Ntozake Shange
Directed and choreographed by Camille A. Brown
Set design by Myung Hee Cho, costume design by Sarafina Bush, lighting design by Jiyoun Chang, sound design by Justin Ellington, projection design by Aaron Rhyne, and hair & wig design by Cookie Jordan. Original music by Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby.
Cast: Amara Granderson as Lady in Orange, Tendayi Kuumba as Lady in Brown, Kenita R. Miller as Lady in Red, Okwui Okpokwasili as Lady in Green, Stacey Sargeant as Lady in Blue, Alexandria Wailes as Lady in Purple, and D. Woods as Lady in Yellow. Rachel Christopher, Treshelle Edmond, McKenzie Frye, Kala Ross and Alexis Sims join the company as standbys and understudies.
Photographs by Marc J. Franklin