When Ntozake Shange’s play, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf,” opened on Broadway at the beginning of June 1976, when Shange was just 27, Clive Barnes, the usually reserved New York Times critic, was entirely unreserved: “Black sisterhood,” he wrote. “That is what Ntozake Shange’s totally extraordinary and wonderful evening at Joseph Papp’s Anspacher Theater, in the Lafayette Street Theater complex, is all about. It has those insights into life and living that make the theater such an incredible marketplace for the soul. And simply because it is about black women—not just blacks and not just women—it is a very humbling but inspiring thing for a white man to experience.”
So it should be. “For Colored Girls” is being staged twice for one day only at the African American Cultural Center in Palm Coast Saturday (May 7), at 3 and 7 p.m. It’s a reprise from its Palm Coast debut in 1999 at the Flagler Auditorium, when Melinda Morais produced and starred, as she does again in this revival.
- “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf,” Saturday, May 7, at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., at the African American Cultural Center, 4422 North US 1, near White View Parkway. Tickets: $15. Call 447-7030 for information.
It also is a timely echo, in style and soul, to another, equally remarkable play being staged this weekend and the next a few miles away at the Flagler Playhouse, “The Me Nobody Knows.” Neither work is a traditional play with either plot or character development. Both plays are a reflection of early 1970s, mostly black, mostly insurgent culture. Where the insurgency of “The Me Nobody Knows” explodes from the heart and humor of teens, the insurgents of “For Colored Girls” are seven women, each named for a color of the rainbow, each coloring her shade of feminism. One in Chicago, one in Detroit, one in Houston, one Baltimore, one in San Francisco, one in Manhattan, and one in St. Louis.
No, not in any of these cities, but outside each city, each woman specifies, underscoring the alienation, the sense of exclusion, they’re fighting against. They’re nevertheless city women, they’re also plausibly all the same woman or a million women, and not necessarily black women, or even women who wear different colors: “There was no allegorical reason” for the colors of the rainbow, Shange herself told an audience at Bethune-Cookman College when she visited 15 years ago. The colors were designed to make it easier for the stage direction to keep track of actors’ lines, which underscores the characters’ Everywoman nature. For that matter those characters aren’t that distant from Florida: one of the inspirations for the play, its folksiness and rabid earthiness, is Zora Neale Hurston, whose Central Florida roots are among this state’s cultural redeemers.
- “The Me Nobody Knows” at Flagler Playhouse: Vivid, Raw and Joyful Ghetto Truths
- Jacksonville Symphony Pops “Americana Under the Stars” at Palm Coast Concert
- Palm Coast’s SoHo: Secca Tree Studios Double Hollingsworth Gallery’s Arts Empire
Both “The Me Nobody Knows” and “For Colored Girls” feature a mosaic of characters, rather than an ensemble of them, each representing a set of stories, many of them—and virtually all of them in “For Colored Girls”—written as poems rather than prose: Shange described her work as choreopoetry, something she began as a series of seven poems modeled after Judy Graham’s The Common Woman, each exploring a different kind of woman. It evolved into 20 poems that became her play (and that the hyper-commercial Tyler Perry—as hyper-popular among black audiences as he’s been ritualistically eviscerated by white critics—adapted into a movie last year).
In the fashion of the early 70s, when the counter-culture recast roles, ideologies and alphabets, Shange wrote waz for was, trhu for through, wit for with, yrs for yours, and had no use for apostrophes, which seem to her texts like errant men. She had less use for style for the sake of style. Shange’s poetry isn’t stylish. It isn’t elegant, and god forbid if it should be structured. That’s establishment, powder-room, sentimental stuff. The beauty of her poetry is in the slap-like, rapid-fire sound of a language liberated from convention in the same way that Shange’s women are liberating themselves from society’s strictures and assumptions in front of your eyes. As Shange puts it, “I will tell all of your secrets into your face.” She was Def Poetry before Def Poetry was cool (or masculine).
“Ivory-tower academics steeped in Shakespeare, Keats and other dead British poets might sniff that today’s oral tradition takes on gimmicky guises,” Rick de Yampert, the Daytona Beach news-Journal’s entertainment writer, who’s followed Shange’s career, wrote in 1996 after interviewing her. “Witness Shange’s Taos Heavyweight Poetry Championship, won at a performance-oriented, reading-cum-competition, replete with judges and a boxing-match atmosphere. “That’s OK,” Shange told him. Those academics, she continued, “are the same people whose people owned me. These are the same people whose ideology could justify slavery, so how they deal with language is of no importance to me, because the way they dealt with language made me not a person.”
Speaking of a woman’s studies program she attended in California, she described how “with dance I discovered my body more intimately than I had imagined possible. With the acceptance of the ethnicity of my thighs & backside, came a clearer understanding of my voice as a woman & a poet. The freedom to move in space, to demand of my own sweat a perfection that could continually be approached, though never known, waz poem to me, my body & mind ellipsing, probably for the first time in my life.”
The characters of “For Colored Girls” put on a baptism of intimacy along those lines before the audience’s eyes. From the moment they take the stage, these seven colors begin to tell you about the “dark phrases of womanhood.” There’s infanticide, there’s rape, there’s incest, there’s abortion, there’s betrayal—as one color describes her Harlem, “six blocks of cruelty piled up on itself.” There’s also love and self-discovery. But there is no sentimentalism. These aren’t rosewater stories with beginnings, middles and cathartic ends. They’re poetic assertions in words and dance.
Listen to lady in yellow, the rhythms of her words keeping the beat of her night on a not altogether reassuring prowl:
It was graduation nite & I waz the only virgin in the crowd
bobby mills martin Jerome & Sammy Yates eddie jones & randi
all the prettiest niggers in this factory town
carried me out wit em
in a deep black buick
smellin of thunderbird & ladies in heat
we rambled from Camden to mount holly
laughin at the afternoon’s speeches
& dangling our tassles from the rear view mirtror
climbin different sorta project staors
movin toward snappin beer cans &
GET IT GET IT THAT’S THE WAY TO DO IT MAMA
all mercer county graduated the same nite
cosmetology secretarial pre-college autoshop & business
all us movin from mama to what ever waz out there
Or to lady in blue, giving apologies a piece of her humorous mind:
One thing I don’t need
is any more apologies
I got sorry greetin me at my front door
you can keep yrs
I don’t know what to do wit em
Seven colors, seven women, 20 poems, but the bond between it all is, as Clive Barnes put it, sisterhood, a word too maligned for wear over the years, but here seen and felt in the authenticity of its origins, before it became a cliché, before Oprah tamed it, styled it, put it on the couch and prompted the requisite tears before cutting to commercial. No such stylings in Ntozake Shange’s hands. Remember the suicide part, always rumbling behind that rainbow.
In Melinda Morais’s production at the African American Cultural Center, lady in red is Carla Testar, lady in yellow is Crystal Green, lady in green is Melissa Arnold, lady in brown is Marguerite Brown (who describes her character as true love: “True Love, is my character’s motivation. Simple, innocent, and unfiltered love from a girl at a very young age”), lady in purple, is Asia-Lige Arnold, lady in orange is Melinda Morais, and lady in Blue is Robin Banks, who’s taking to the stage for the first time in her life to, not unlike colors in the play, “to put forth a new experience and challenge in my life.”
For Palm Coast and Flagler County, to have “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf,” staged here is its own accomplishment, and to Morais’s and the African American Cultural Center’s great credit. To have it staged at the same time as “The Me Nobody Knows”—even, and especially if, coincidentally—is yet another indication of a maturing hunger for serious artistic works.