It shouldn’t come as a shock that the seven protagonists of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf are respectful and kind to one another. Ntozake Shange’s 1976 choreopoem was (and continues to be) a milestone in black feminist drama – a dynamic work of poetry in motion about the glories and struggles of contemporary black women. And yet, the soft smiles and quick glances between the women, the way one slides over in her seat to make room for another, create a compassion that extends to the audience, who may hopefully extend it outside the theatre.
In Leah C. Gardiner’s production at The Public Theater, this communal energy is generated from the outset, with Myung Hee Cho’s set suggesting a come-one-come-all dance floor, complete with mirrored walls and dangling disco balls. The audience completely surrounds the space, and as the women slowly gather onstage and find their rhythms and movements, we are made aware of the immense physical effort required to share the stories that will follow.
Not that these performances are labored, or over-rehearsed, even if the choreopoem format – somewhere between slam poetry and dance (courtesy of Camille A. Brown, who blends step, vogue and hip-hop into more traditional interpretive dancing) – indelibly ties their lush movement to their words. No, the cast is fresh and vibrantly alive, generously giving speakers approving nods and snaps, or echoing their words with their own affirmations. You get the sense that no two performances could be the same. It’s the kind of community these women need, an inclusive space they have created for themselves and anyone who needs it. However specific their stories may be, they remain anonymous, referred to by the color of their dress (Lady in Blue, Lady in Orange, etc…). The rainbow they create becomes the beauty at the core of their existence.
And, God, is that beauty hard to find sometimes. On they go through their personal histories – sometimes alone, as when Lady in Red (a fierce Jayme Lawson) recounts a toxic relationship turned tragic; sometimes together, as when the Ladies in Yellow, Blue, and Purple join each other in lamenting that “a friend is hard to press charges against.” But the beauty is there, if sometimes only in the radical act of sharing one’s story and hearing themselves in others’. The strongest moments in an all-around stellar production happen with the entire cast onstage, as when they dance while proclaiming their love as “too delicate, too beautiful, too sanctified” to be thrown back in their faces.
It’s not all downtrodden tragedies on the path to that dance of affirmation, though, and Gardiner and her cast deftly maintain the tone from veering into sob-story melodrama, as Tyler Perry’s 2010 film adaptation did. The most painful stories are given their due weight, but balanced by the cast’s active presence for one another. The lighter moments feel as potent as the heaviest, as in Lady in Green’s (Okwui Okpokwasili, in a breakout performance) denunciation of a lover who almost “walked off wid alla my stuff.” This Lady did not come to play, but she is less interested in shaming her ex with a grand Feminist monologue than she is in finding the comedy in coming to terms with a bad situation which will, hopefully, never repeat itself after its public venting.
What will hopefully repeat itself is the joy felt when Lady in Blue (a golden-voiced Sasha Allen) allows her powerhouse vocals to fluidly meander through a number about dreaming with “the souls of black folks.” Or in seeing Lady in Purple (the deaf actor Alexandria Wailes) dance out a story of love and beauty in the bayou.
It’s a traumatic world outside the comfortable Public Theater, and Malcolm X was not vying for woke points when he said that the most neglected person in America is the black woman. But then, Shange was not aiming for tragedy in composing this glorious vision of an inner landscape seldom given this much intricacy and life. There is only so much praise this (White) Venezuelan male critic can heap onto this work without falling into Liberal back-patting, but this production is unwavering in its honesty, allowing the sharing of deeply personal stories the space it deserves, portraying emotional truths while allowing us to find them in our own lives.