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‘For Colored Girls’: Theater Review


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The play begins with a call to the past.

“Aunt mamie was a lil colored girl. Aunt Effie was a lil colored girl, Mama was a lil colored girl, you’re a lil colored girl … / Imagine … if we could get all of them to talk, what would they say? / Imagine all the stories we could tell about the funny looking lil colored girls, and the / sophisticated lil colored girls, and the pretty little colored girls…the ones just like you!,” says the playwright Ntozake Shange, through voiceover, to the audience.

Her soft, excited wishes fill the intimate space of the Booth Theater in New York City, kicking off Camille A. Brown’s rendition of the playwright’s canonical choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enough. The production, which opens April 20, takes the task of revival seriously — it’s a joy to witness.

When for colored girls opened at Booth for the first time in 1976, it jolted the theater world with the frank and experimental way it approached the subject of Black womanhood. The seven women — each representing a color of the rainbow — recited monologues that detailed and wrestled with their experiences of love, loss, betrayal, violation and hope. Their poems were combined with dance and music to tell these intimate stories. The genre-defying work, which Shange had been developing since 1974, was only the second show by an African American to open on Broadway. It ran for two years. One hopes this version does just as well.

Brown’s version of the production injects Shange’s already electrifying work with a distinctive and vivid energy. She has kept much of the original choreopoem (a term coined by Shange to describe this piece’s combination of poetry, narrative, dance and music) intact, but with the help of her dynamic cast, Brown, who both directs and choreographs this revival, remixes for colored girls, manipulating sound and movement to reveal even deeper layers.

Establishing joy is the first order of business. The women saunter onto the stage with signature styles, the mark of costume designer Sarafina Bush. A shake of the hips, a raise of the eyebrows, a knowing grin — these and other small gestures come up again and again over the course of the play, a way to imbue the women with even more personality.

Lady in Orange (Amara Granderson), Lady in Brown (Tendayi Kuumba), Lady in Red (Kenita R. Miller), Lady in Green (Okwui Okpokwasili), Lady in Blue (Stacey Sargeant), Lady in Purple (Alexandria Wailes) and Lady in Yellow (D. Woods), together, form a sisterhood. Their movements are lithe and playful, conjuring the specter of Black girlhood.

The energy is reminiscent of Jamila Woods’ 2016 album Heavn. Like the album, Brown’s opening sequence captures the thrill of double dutch on a breezy afternoon, the secrets tucked into nursery rhymes and hand games, the laughs and whispers of budding friendships.

A sweet mood gives way to a sultrier one when the Lady in Yellow recounts the night she tried, at last, to have sex. Woods transmits an infectious energy; the audience holds on to every word of her narrative. Stories, in the right hands, can be intoxicating, and for colored girls takes advantage of that. Brown’s cast possesses such an intimate understanding of their characters that even the least subtle of the performances captivates. The marriage of Myung Hee Cho’s stage design and Jiyoun Chang’s lighting helps focus our attention.

Yellow passes the baton to Lady in Blue, who, through her story about spending nights in the South Bronx, turns the dial up on the existing energy. The boisterous mood doesn’t last, though; the play moves on to darker materials. These transitions are fertile terrain, grounds onto which Brown tends to Shange’s work as one would an inherited garden. There’s a distinctive use of breathwork and guttural sounds that induce visceral reactions to the narratives. Couple these sonic strokes with the movements — bodies slither across the stage, heads are cocked — and what you have is a shadow language that bolsters Shange’s rhythmic poems.

Brown has made other exciting changes, too, like the addition of American Sign Language into the script: Wailes’ Lady in Purple signs her lines, which are then read aloud by Granderson’s Lady in Orange. The inclusion stimulates our sense of the choreopoem’s possibilities and scope. One wonders, then, about future productions that might further develop the play’s articulations of Black womanhood with the inclusion of experiences of trans mothers, daughters and sisters.

The magic of Brown’s version of for colored girls is that it fashions the choreopoem as an invitation. Even Lady in Red’s devastating monologue about escaping an abusive relationship blurs the boundary between audience and actor; with the background dark and a single spotlight illuminating the performer, it feels like the story is being told to you and you alone.

How viewers read or receive these invitations may vary. In one preview attended by this critic, an audience member, moved by the Lady in Green (the brilliant if subdued Okpokwasili), released an affirmative, encouraging shout in response to a poem. Okpokwasili paused, absorbing, savoring the interactive moment, before folding that energy into the rest of her performance.

Venue: Booth Theatre, New York
Cast: Amara Granderson, Tendyi Kuumba, Kenita R. Miller, Okwui Okpokwasili, Stacey Sargeant, Alexandria Wailes, D. Woods
Director and choreographer: Camille A. Brown
Playwright: Ntozake Shange
Set designer: Myung Hee Cho
Costume designer: Sarafina Bush
Lighting designer: Jiyoun Chang
Sound designer: Justin Ellington
Projection designer: Aaron Rhyne
Hair & wig designer: Cookie Jordan
Original Music, orchestrations and arrangements by: Martha Redbone, Aaron Whitby
Drum Arrangements by: Jaylen Petinaud
Music director: Deah Love Harriot
Music coordinator: Tia Allen
Director of Artistic Sign Language: Michelle Banks
Casting: Eric Jensen, Calleri Jensen Davis
Presented by Nelle Nugnet, Ron Simons, Kenneth Teaton, Ellen Ferguson and Vivian Philips, Willette and Manny Klausner, Hunter Arnold, Dale Franzen, Valencia Yearwood, Audible, Dennis Grimaldi, Terry Nardozzi and Tracey Knight Narang, Grace Nordhuff/Mickalene Thomas, Angelina Fiordellsi/Ciaola Productions, The Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, Patrick Willingham, Mandy Hackett

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