For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf was an exotic sight to Broadway theatregoers of 1976: Onstage were black women speaking and dancing to the words of a contemporary, black, feminist writer, Ntozake Shange, and her black, women characters weren't matriarchs, whores, domestics, Pinkie in Show Boat, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington's sophisticated ladies or anybody's dream girls. Shange had managed to get her "choreopoem" from San Francisco poetry readings to an East Village coffee house and finally to the Great White Way, where it was welcomed with open arms. Here, finally, was contemporary, commercially viable, black women's theatre.
The piece, which is being revived by New World Theatre, consists of a series of poems and prose recitations linked by their theme of black women's experiences. Most have to do with male-female relationships, racial and sexual identification and the notion that tragedy plays a large part in the daily lives of black women. Shange, through her work, urges women to claim the world as their own--the "rainbow" is there for the taking by anyone strong enough to realize it.
So far, so good. Until the opening of For Colored Girls, black women had never before had such a high profile on Broadway, and everyone loved the show. It was poignant; it was refreshingly different. It was a chance for white audiences, especially, to get a painless dose of black culture.
That, along with the show's almost vicious treatment of black men, was the hallmark of Shange's narrow vision in For Colored Girls. Once the dust had settled and everyone got over the fact that, yes, this was a great new direction in mainstream theatre, Shange's critics emerged.
The high point of For Colored Girls--and a great solo turn for the right actress--is the poem "a nite with beau willie brown," the story of a woman who refuses to marry the abusive, mentally deranged father of their children. She uses the children as a physical shield against his rage until he can take her refusal to marry him no longer; he grabs the children and drops them out of their fifth-story window. "a nite with beau willie brown" is the culmination of an evening of black, feminist rage, and the message is that black women would be a whole lot better off without black men, period.
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As many found curious, even insulting, Shange's For Colored Girls never directly addresses racism. Black women face difficult and devastating problems every day, but her work points the finger only at black men.
In the opening-night review in the New York Times, in fact, Clive Barnes confessed that he'd expected For Colored Girls to make him feel guilty. The implication, of course, was that any example of black, feminist theatre ought to make the Great White Father of the Great White Way cringe in his theatre seat. Instead, he wrote: "It made me feel proud at being a member of the human race, and the joyous discovery that a white man can have black sisters." While Barnes was exulting in his newfound humanitarianism, others were having a problem with Shange's oppressed not being able to identify and blame their historic oppressors.
A lot of people wanted to treat For Colored Girls as a successful representation of black theatre, and a typical example, maybe even a mirror, of a homogeneous black community. That there exist no such homogeneous communities of any race or ethnic group precludes the shoehorning of For Colored Girls into this niche, but when it opened in 1976, it was the only game in town for black women. Still unanswered today is the question of what black theatre--or Hispanic theatre, or Native American theatre, or gay theatre, or theatre for the hearing impaired--should be expected to present. For Colored Girls, then, turns out to say somewhat less than the production tries to sustain. As staged by New World Theatre at Phoenix City Arts Center, Shange's poems could do with more polish in the music-and-dance department--these elements provided continuity, but sometimes slowed the pace of the show. The set is abstract, a performance space in which the characters create their own time and place, but the scaffolding and drapery onstage lacked imagination and were ugly. A bare stage would have been preferable.
A perplexing introduction had the five actresses enter from the back of the house, seat themselves in the audience and do nothing for several minutes as music played. Then they suddenly jumped up and got on with it. The piece is most successful as theatre when the individual poems contain an identifiable narrative or repetitive rhythmic form. "I usedta live in the world now i live in Harlem" was a good showcase for the talent of Tiajuana Waters as the Lady in Blue, and Precious Morris as the Lady in Red was the most impressive of the five in both "somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff" and the aforementioned "a nite with beau willie brown." But the decision by director Jean Thomsen to allow Morris to drop her head on the last word of the latter piece completely severed the actress's rapport with her listeners--on Broadway, the actress stared out into the audience for such a long, painful moment that you wanted to beg her to break the spell. Political, ethnic and gender issues aside, such is the stuff of theatre.