Probing the Tensions Between the Universal and the Specific in Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls

Alexandria Wailes (center) and the company of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, written by Ntozake Shange and directed by Leah C. Gardiner, with choreography by Camille A. Brown, running at The Public Theater (all images courtesy the Public Theater; all photos by Joan Marcus)

When writing (and reading) about the recent revival of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by the Public Theater, I have noticed the tendency to insert a sense of legibility when describing the play. It is an attempt to construct a linear narrative inside the lyrical prose, to perhaps smoothen the rough parts to protect the reader from its harsh, more uncomfortable realities. Presumably, it is in the concept of the universal that many of these perspectives are invested. However, it is the specific tragedies of racist and sexual violence, the psychological burden of street harassment and other normalized discriminations that make Shange’s masterpiece so deeply aligned with Black women’s experiences. Shange delivers her narrative with uncompromising beauty, intent on encapsulating the nuances of Black female subjectivity, as well as revealing her own.

Jayme Lawson and Adrienne C. Moore in for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf

In 1976, the Public Theater was the first to produce for colored girls before the play moved onto a two-and-a-half-year run at the Booth Theater on Broadway, unfurling a legacy of performances at theaters, colleges, and universities across the country. Then and now, Shange’s work responded to an urgent fever pitch humming beneath the taut surface of pain and respectability. In this latest dazzling iteration, directed by Obie winner Leah C. Gardiner, we are reunited with these critical voices in their original off-Broadway home. The cast members enliven the piece with a contemporary energy combined with the breathtaking passion of Camille A. Brown’s choreography. They are a mixture of theater and television actresses: Celia Chevalier (of Orange is the New Black, as the Lady in Brown), Sasha Allen (Lady in Blue), Adrienne C Moore (Lady in Yellow), Danaya Esperanza (Lady in Orange), Jayme Lawson (Lady in Red), Okwui Okpokwasili (Lady in Green), and Alexandria Wailes (Lady in Purple), who is also deaf, in a sensational performance in a role that was not originally written for a deaf performer. Each actress invites the audience into their community of dance, story, and song, with original music by Martha Redbone. Alongside this sense of universality lies an undeniable sense of shared knowledge, a separate conversation between women of color, akin to the Lady in Brown’s conjuring in the early moments of the play, let her be born let her be born and handled warmly. This presentation of for colored girls occurs just one year after Ntozake Shange’s death at age 70. She had been in talks with Gardiner about plans to remount the production, but would not live to see the revival of her groundbreaking work.

The company of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf

In the 40 years since the play first debuted, Shange produced a prolific body of work, spanning from plays to poetry collections, novels, and a cookbook, most of which utilized her fragmented and inventive style of prose. One of her most recent books is the epic novel, Some Sing, Some Cry,  written in collaboration with her sister, Ifa Bayeza. Shange’s early career was characterized by turmoil; after her marriage failed, Shange attempted suicide four times. Poetry is believed to be what encouraged her shift in course, demonstrated in the use of dance and song by the characters from for colored girls as an attempt to stave off pain.

Celia Chevalier (foreground) in for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf

While the rates of suicide for Black teenage boys has risen since 2017, the lower recordings of Black female suicides indicate an absence of empirical or qualitative research. for colored girls asserts the importance of the psychological stakes of identity, apparent in Shange’s use of the word “consider” in her play’s title. To “consider” need not involve complete acceptance or rejection. Rather, to consider is to take inventory of one’s options. Often, it is the distance between giving up or giving in. Authentic narratives such as Shange’s are rare, and more romanticized narratives of sorrow abound in popular media, such as in Sophia Coppola’s 1999 film, The Virgin Suicides adapted from the Jeffery Eugenides novel — an influential “sad girl” symbol from my generation. The Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why — a controversial attempt to face this endemic issue among young people — also comes to mind. However, it is the unabashed study of the emotional dealings of Black women where Shange received both scrutiny and mainstream praise. Despite the widespread success of for colored girls, Shange received many offers to recreate the show’s premise. She resisted, stating that,  “What it did to me is try to fit a round peg … into a whole bunch of square buildings.” She was even criticized for speaking up at all, with detractors suggesting that the examination of sorrow reflects privilege, typically aligned with dominant culture. If one based their understanding of suicide and depression on its representations in popular media, one might even agree. In the revival, this critique is directly addressed by the Lady in Brown: we deal wit emotion too much why don’t we go on ahead & be white then. Chevalier’s Lady in Brown immediately dismisses this idea; her response a critical and also humorous break in the somber tone, signaling to the audience that we can no longer afford to give into such depraved thinking.

Midway through the revival performance, I realized that the backdrop of the stage appeared to be made up of hanging mirrored panels. In a brilliant move by Scenic Designer Myung Hee Cho, the mirrors were positioned to reflect both the audience and the performers at the same time. At certain points, the audience could see themselves, poised to “consider” while also bearing witness to the vulnerability of the performers. Through the timelessness of for colored girls, this aesthetic choice amplifies the tension involved in a narrative that is both universal and specific, leaving us to wonder what the production could look like in another forty years.  

The company of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf

for colored girls who have considered suicide when/when the rainbow is enuf continues at the Public Theater through December 15, 2019. The revival of Ntozake Shange’s play is directed by Leah C. Gardiner with choreography by Camille A. Brown.

Original source: https://hyperallergic.com/533253/probing-the-tensions-between-the-universal-and-the-specific-in-ntozake-shanges-for-colored-girls/

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