The “For Colored Girls” Revival Off-Broadway Is a Vibrant Moment for Black Women

This seminal work is a part of our radical tradition and is still prescient

Photos: Joan Marcus

OnOn what would have been Ntozake Shange’s 70th birthday, a crowd filled The Public Theater in NYC to witness For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf performed in the round. For Colored Girls is a dramatic expression, coined by Shange as a choreopoem, telling the story of seven women (each represented by a color) through poems, prose, and dance.

At the top of the show, Lady in Brown opens with the poem “dark phrases.” She introduces what it means to be a colored girl in this world. Lady in Brown calls out that she is from outside Strasbourg, France. Her six companions then roll call their cities. “I’m outside of Nashville, Washington, D.C., La Habana, Cuba, Brooklyn, Newark, Delaware.” The list of cities is different from the original text, but the message is the same: Colored girls are global.

The center of the stage shifts to wherever the storyteller is standing. The women encircle her and engage with her as she leads. Their stories combined weave together the complex realities of Black women navigating our bodies, sexuality, gender, violence, joy, and friendship. Together they begin a journey from childhood to adulthood.

The ethereal power of Shange’s work is the way language is freeform in the air as delivered. The choreography allows the words to float without anchoring the words permanently earthside. Therefore, dance is a critical element in the revival’s staging.

The For Colored Girls script has taken several journeys. In December 1974, Shange performed the first incarnation of her choreopoem with four artists at a women’s bar outside Berkeley, California. In New York City, she continued to develop the play. It went on to open at the Booth Theatre in 1976. It is the second play by a Black woman to reach Broadway, preceded by Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (in 1959). The 1976 Broadway production was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. For Colored Girls has been performed off-Broadway and was adapted as a book (first published in 1976 by Shameless Hussy Press), a 1982 television film, and a 2010 theatrical film. Now, For Colored Girls is back at The Public for the first time since its breakthrough run on Broadway.

TThe word “revival” attached to the For Colored Girls promotion begs the question: For whom is this a revival? For Black women, this work has been in our lives for more than four decades and counting. We’ve been breathing life into it as we read it at home, perform it publicly, and talk about it in local theaters and classrooms. It is our inheritance.

For decades, we have been doing the work of passing it from one generation to the next because it is a work that radically humanizes us. Black women certainly benefit from public money and attention as a ripple effect of recentering this seminal work, but the work itself did not need to be resuscitated by or for Black women because we never let it die. We are the reason this work remains alive. Black women need to be seen at the forefront of every social movement, and this includes the trends in the theater.

This in itself speaks to the urgency of this revival in the larger societal context. It is powerful to be seen. It is powerful to self-determine our voices in relation to our experiences. Garlia Cornelia Jones is a playwright and works as a line producer for the revival. She says, “Coming into contact with this work now, after marriage, children, divorce, and the experiences of life — personal challenges, major losses, and heartbreak, to name a few — I am empowered by this work, to speak my truth.” Jones is not alone in her kinship with the work. The piece is fluid, moving with us as we move through time and the world.

Collectively and individually, the current cast members are descendants of Shange. They are the living proof of the ways For Colored Girls blasted open theatrical, literary, and performing arts pathways for Black women. After all, before For Colored Girls, there had never been an all-Black, all-woman cast on Broadway, and to date, there has only been one other production to claim this title: Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed. This iteration of For Colored Girls features the performances of Sasha Allen (Lady in Blue), Celia Chevalier (Lady in Brown), Danaya Esperanza (Lady in Orange), Jayme Lawson (Lady in Red), Adrienne C. Moore (Lady in Yellow), Okwui Okpokwasili (Lady in Green), Alexandria Wailes (Lady in Purple), and D. Woods (understudy). It is directed by Obie Award winner Leah C. Gardiner.

Playwright Liza Jessie Peterson attended the performance. When asked what is the value of the revival at this moment in U.S. Black women’s theater history, she responds, “’Cause it’s medicine, and we need healing and affirmation and celebration and reminders of our beauty and power. And with so much assault on our minds, bodies, psyche, and spirit, For Colored Girls offers us a baptism, a healing balm, a bridge over troubled waters, a lighthouse in dark times. Quite frankly, it’s church, so a revival is just what we need right f*cking now! It’s an antidote to a whole lot of shenanigans going on.”

TThe ethereal power of Shange’s work is the way language is freeform in the air as delivered. The choreography allows the words to float without anchoring them permanently earthside. Therefore, dance is a critical element in the revival’s staging.

This revival is choreographed by the Black female Tony-nominated choreographer Camille A. Brown. Shange was introduced to Brown’s work through her sister, playwright Ifa Bayeza. Bayeza attended a performance of Brown’s Black Girl: Linguistic Play at Jacob’s Pillow in 2017. Bayeza brought Shange to view her other works. Shange wanted to interview Brown about her choreography, and Brown’s response was “I should be interviewing you!”

In my previous interviews with Shange, she has spent tremendous amounts of time reflecting on her love for movement. Dance allows language to be embodied while also allowing it to be ephemeral. She describes dancing as “how we can remember what cannot be said.”

She spoke lovingly of early-career collaborations with choreographer Dianne McIntyre. They met when Shange came to study at Mcintyre’s Sounds in Motion dance studio in Harlem in 1975. McIntyre recalls, “She never missed a class — a passionate dancer — such flowing and graceful limbs, amazing full arch of the back. She was a dynamic dancer, indeed! In every class, she gave her all.”

From 1978 through 2018, Shange and McIntyre continued to work together. “Sometimes the collaborations were formal like Spell #7 at The Public Theater or Boogie Woogie Landscapes at the Kennedy Center. Or Riding the Moon in Texas in Houston with Ntozake, Laurie Carlos, me, and a man with one day of rehearsal.” They worked spontaneously in clubs, in theaters, living rooms, outdoor spaces, studios, colleges — collaborating was something they “just had to do” according to McIntyre. Later in life, after having experienced strokes and a neuropathy disorder that required physical therapy, Shange found herself dancing even while sitting whenever possible. All art in her life led to dance, and all roads seem to return to dance.

Brown has been developing her aesthetic for over a decade. Her signature works include excavations of ancestral stories, both timeless and traditional, that seem to freeze time while highlighting Black historical narratives in motion.

Brown’s contribution to For Colored Girls continues this tradition, bringing Blackness to the main stage. Brown’s percussive gestures require actresses to use their bodies, the floor, and each other to keep time as they pivot from one poem to the next. According to McIntryre, this is incredibly important: “In Ntozake Shange’s works, everyone must be equipped to do everything — speak, dance, sing, and even sometimes do that all together at the same time. There is no separation between the poem and the dance. It is one entity. The poem moves, it breathes, it leaps, turns, and pliés.”

It was important for Brown to hold dear to the text while being able to infuse her creativity.

“I played a lot with abstraction,” she said. “It’s always exciting to find different entry points into something that challenges you to think differently. For this work, I knew that my first choice wouldn’t be correct. It would be about my eighth. How far am I willing to dig and unearth the language? I continued to ask myself this question throughout the process.”

Brown does not provide the performers with choreography. Instead, she provides the players with options, new ways to deliver the spoken word that requires them to be deeply connected to their bodies. The goal is for each cast member to be themselves while also performing and moving. She explains, “We talked about what it means for us to be vulnerable and brave regardless of the spaces we are in. To hold ourselves and each other with love and honesty. Authenticity was crucial to the dancing.”

ByBy definition, a revival is an act of bringing something back, a restoration, a reawakening, an instance of something becoming popular, active, or important again. These definitions feel true yet problematic and scary. I patiently sat in the theater asking the ancestors what makes this production different — what is being reawakened spiritually tonight here in the round?

For Colored Girls is a part of a Black radical tradition that proclaims our ability to love and be loved (if by no one else then by each other). It will eternally hold space for Black women, for women of color and for all theater that seeks to decolonize eurocentric aesthetics.

I received my answer when Allen as Lady in Blue delivered the song “The Souls of Black Folks.” It comes after she recites the poem “Eyes Mice Men Womb, Abortion Cycle #1.” Her voice transformed me from watching a play to being engulfed by it. There is no doubt that the musical composition provided by Martha Redbone adds a new layer of perfection to already compelling work. Redbone is an American blues and soul singer of part Cherokee, Choctaw, European, and African American descent. Redbone says when she was asked to create original compositions, she was thrilled. She shares, “‘The Souls of Black Folks’ poem is what I turned into a song; I wanted to show that we may make many choices, but when we are grieving and need healing, we need to be with our people who understand our struggle in a way that no one else can.”

She continues, explaining, “I wanted to pay homage to all the styles of Black music in the African diaspora — blues, ragtime, gospel, Afrobeat, jazz and Afro-Latin jazz, soul, R&B, hip-hop, mbalax — a spectrum of who we are today and how far we’ve come in every way, music that originated with us as Black and Brown people. I wanted to represent three words in the music: black girl joy.”

The combination of Allen’s power vocals and Redbone’s songwriting talent shook the room. It transported us. It brought us to church. It brought us to the river. It brought us closer to Shange in ways I didn’t know I needed.

Yet with all homecomings, those returning “home” to For Colored Girls are confronted with the nostalgia of the past, the present moment, and the uncertainty of the future. For Colored Girls is part of a Black radical tradition that proclaims our ability to love and be loved (if by no one else, then by each other). It will eternally hold space for Black women, for women of color, and for all theater that seeks to decolonize eurocentric aesthetics. And yet, with Shange transitioning a year ago, there is a sadness that hovers in my thoughts. We miss her. What will come of this work and her legacy? Will the work stand the test of time, and how will the estate ensure that the work lives on?

Paul Williams, Shange’s brother, is hopeful. He says, “It’s important to make room for younger people to see what they can do” in modernizing this classic text. He is amazed at the countless stories women share of how For Colored Girls has impacted their lives. He appreciates the nostalgia audiences bring in honoring the text. He believes it needed to be revived and that it is the right time to do so. Williams recognizes that the original production met a strong social need to affirm Black women. It is important to hold that space today especially given the shifting consciousness we’ve seen recently with the explosion of the #MeToo movement and the work that activist Tarana Burke is doing.

Accessibility is at the forefront of Willams’ mind as one of the most poignant attributes of this revival. This revival is a unique balance of yesterday and the present. Alexandria Wailes’ performance as Lady in Purple is a welcomed addition. She is an American deaf actress, dancer, director, and educator. She utilizes the languages of English and American Sign Language and is known for her work with Deaf West Theatre. To hear her speak, see her sign, and vibrantly perform this work is a steadfast reminder that theater must be accessible and representational.

Williams notes, “My sister deserves this revival. It is special because it is something she wanted to do. She was a transparent being, a prolific thinker. She was her art.” Williams believes that a legacy is defined by the works and deeds you leave that are helpful to other people. He believes the successful revival of For Colored Girls is proof that the world is still benefiting from it: “As long as there is someone out there who can benefit from [Shange’s work], it needs to be out there,” and the estate is committed to that.

For Colored Girls is currently playing at The Public Theatre until December 15, 2019.

Writer for publication and stage. Bylines for Shondaland, Playboy, Wear Your Voice, Our Prism, & Dame. Black. Indigenous. Queer. Decolonize everything.

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