My friend Michelle and I were the only white people in the audience at last week's performance of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, which made me all the more aware that I was a white man who doesn't like poetry who'd come to watch a collection of choreographed poems by and about black women. I was mostly interested in seeing how Paulette Williams' celebrated one-act held up.
For Colored Girls is among a handful of productions of its time (the television musical Free to Be You and Me also comes to mind, although that was aimed at kids) that sprang out of cultural expressions — in this case, the public "happenings" of the late '60s — that quickly burned themselves out and were forgotten. For me, For Colored Girls has one of those post-peak, hippie-dippy titles that suggest an earnest civil rights story with an expired shelf life. I'd avoided this show for decades for that very reason, and not just because I deplore poetry. But there's a new production set to open on Broadway this summer, which got me thinking about how relevant this 30-year-old play could still be.
As it turns out, it's a show that still rings with sincerity and — as presented by the remarkable cast brought together by Black Poet Ventures, a poetry collective that has only recently begun presenting theatrical productions — a deep passion that frankly surprised me.
The 20 poems that constitute For Colored Girls fuse Williams' experiences as a woman of color and as a poet and dancer. She wrote the piece in 1971 following her own suicide attempt, after which she took the Zulu name Ntozake Shange (it means "she who comes with her own things and walks like a lion," which sounds fierce and also a little silly until you hear the astonishing poem titled "Someone Almost Walked Off Wid Alla My Stuff" toward the end of the performance) and began writing. After a couple of years of Off-Broadway productions, the show made its way to Broadway in 1976, where it played nearly 800 performances and won a Tony.
The seven unnamed characters, each dressed in a different colored skirt or pair of trousers, enact the different "choreopoems," alone or in pairs or small groups. They recite Williams' fiery verses, strutting or dancing or (and normally I hate this, a lot) pantomiming stories about loss and death and abuse, and although the message at the core of each piece is the same — that black women are strong and cannot be held down — there wasn't a single selection that wasn't distinct and fresh and vibrant.
Director Rod Ambrose wisely emphasizes neither movement nor poetry in his production, which gives cast members who move better than they emote a chance to shine. Celeste Benton's warm, joyous reading of The Lady in Brown's "Toussaint" is a standout matched only by the show-stopping "A Nite with Beau Willie Brown," a shocking tone poem read by Keisha Agard.
Ambrose's kinetic, restless direction keeps the stories flowing, overlapping one another and fused by Billy Ramsey's subtle, near-perfect light cues. The script calls for occasional prerecorded musical accompaniment (Martha and the Vandellas doing "Dancing in the Streets"; The Dells' "Stay"), a ploy that usually comes off as a cheap distraction but that here sound like another poem by wronged, joyous women — in these cases, ones who happen to be Motown hitmakers.
Perhaps it was the strong cast, but I found nothing retro or stale about these perfectly voiced denunciations of rape, rejection, and violent abuse. These are stories that continue to need telling and that still resonate with the unfortunate truth about the stereotypes of black people living in white society, all these years after Williams penned them.