Broadway review by Melissa Rose Bernardo
After for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf received a beautiful (if bursting-at-the-seams) 2019 revival at the Public Theater, where it played in 1976, how fitting that Ntozake Shange’s theatrical tone poem should now circle back to Broadway’s Booth Theatre, to which it originally moved and ran for nearly 750 performances. The first voice we hear is Shange’s own. “Imagine all the stories we could tell,” she says in a recording, “about the funny looking lil colored girls, and the sophisticated lil colored girls, and the pretty lil colored girls…the ones just like you!” Poet-playwright-dancer Shange—who originated the role of Lady in Orange, one of the show’s seven color-coded characters—died in 2018, but this rousing revival testifies to the magnitude of her imagination and the unyielding power of the female voice.
Almost from the start, the show is in constant motion. “We gotta dance to keep from cryin,” says Lady in Yellow (D. Woods); “we gotta dance to keep from dyin,” echoes Lady in Brown (Tendayi Kuumba). The staging by Camille A. Brown (Once On This Island) takes those words to heart, stopping the flow only to underscore the text’s most serious moments, such as a still on-point sequence about “latent rapists.” Brown choreographed the Public version, which was helmed by Leah C. Gardiner; with this production, she becomes the first Black woman to direct and choreograph a Broadway show since Katherine Dunham in 1955.
This version of for colored girls truly does feel like a choreopoem, Shange’s term for her amalgamation of words, motion and music. (The percussive original score is by Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby). The seven women on stage are barefoot, and their movement—which draws on African-American traditions including juba, stepping and social dance—feels organic, natural and triumphant. “Sechita,” performed and signed by Lady in Purple (the amazing Alexandria Wailes) and spoken by Lady in Orange (Amara Granderson), conjures a seductive Creole carnival worker dancing for dust-covered rednecks; we can almost see this mythical woman “catchin stars tween her toes.”
Though grounded in the experience of Black women in the 1970s, Shange’s poems have a timeless resonance. To name a few: “i usedta live in the world” from Lady in Blue (Stacey Sargeant), a story of profound isolation in a crowded city; “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff,” a ferociously comic but stern reminder to preserve your individuality in a relationship (“i didnt know i’d give it up so quik,” sighs Lady in Green, played by Okwui Okpokwasili); a set of four confessional, take-me-as-I-am “no more love poems”; and “sorry,” in which the women tick off all the lame apologies they’ve heard from men. And then there’s “a nite with beau willie brown,” a gut-punch of a piece about an abusive drug-addled veteran with PTSD, “his girl” Crystal and the babies he uses as pawns. Could Shange have imagined a pregnant Lady in Red (Kenita R. Miller) telling that tragic tale? When it comes to a heartbreaking end, mama-to-be Miller isn’t the only one in tears.
for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. Booth Theatre (Broadway). By Ntozake Shange. Directed by Camille A. Brown. With Amara Granderson, Tendayi Kuumba, Kenita R. Miller, Okwui Okpokwasili, Stacey Sargeant, Alexandria Wailes, D. Woods. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
for colored girls… | Photograph: Courtesy Marc J. Franklin