Shange’s nervy mix of wordplay and in-your-face didacticism — of resilience in the face of hardship — is very much the empowering thing.
for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange. Directed by Dayenne C. Byron Walters. Staged by Praxis Stage at Hibernian Hall, 184 Dudley Street, Boston, MA, through February 25.
By Bill Marx
The vaudeville that is our politics is seeing an invigorating infusion of female voices, no doubt driven by the cleansing power of the #metoo movement and the much needed rise of women running for political office in reaction to the election of our pussy-grabbing president. Usually content to hang back safely behind the times, our theater companies are taking notice of the change, and we are seeing more examples (though not nearly enough) of women taking center stage. I have a demur, which I will go into later, but productions with women telling us their stories have been spot lit lately, from the American Repertory Theater’s HEAR WORD! and Unveiled at the New Repertory Theatre to In the Eruptive Mode at ArtsEmerson.
So this is apt time for Praxis Stage’s sturdy revival of Ntozake Shange’s venerable choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, the grandmother of scripts that feature women speaking out — with lyricism and honesty — about the trials and tribulations, the joys and terrors, of their lives. Originally produced in Berkeley in 1974 by the playwright and four other performers, the show opened on Broadway in 1976, where it was nominated for a Tony Award. Shange added new material in 2010: both are somewhat melodramatic pieces, one about AIDS, the other dealing with Iraq War and PTSD.
The additions, while affecting, point out the strengths of the original material, which reflect the jingle-jangle energy of the ’60s, mixed in with some of the ethos of Black Power. Shange’s language examines serious issues — abortion and domestic abuse, date rape and racism, abandonment and despair — with a jazzy poetic flair (the mention of saxophonist Archie Shepp and his “Magic of Juju” is enough to make my heart thump). The show proffers a bluesy, Beat-influenced swing that can jump from an affectionate recall of losing one’s virginity in the back of a car to thoughts of self-destruction. This nervy mix of wordplay and in-your-face didacticism — of resilience in the face of hardship — is very much the empowering thing. There are no characters, only seven nameless women who have been assigned colors: the lady in red, lady in orange, lady in yellow, lady in green, lady in blue, lady in brown, and lady in purple.
I have not seen a production of the play for almost a decade, most likely when the new material spawned some revivals. The staging I saw then made good use of a multi-leveled performance space, which added some visual panache to the proceedings. At Hibernian Hall the cast members perform on the floor in front of the audience. The lighting is somewhat rudimentary, as is W. Lola Remy’s choregraphy. Thankfully, the cast is strong enough to make the choreopoem move along with sufficient emotional (and rhythmic) crackle, with Verna Hampton supplying a nicely growly voice as the Lady in Brown, Dayenne C. Byron Walters evoking, amusingly, young love as the Lady in Yellow, and Thomica Marie Bridwell serving up plenty of sizzle as the Lady in Green. For me, the standout scene comes when the Ladies have seriocomic fun impersonating the cluelessness of wayward men. Kerline Desir, as the Lady in Red, does well with the overwrought episode in which a woman has to deal with a man suffering from PTSD.
So is it good to have this production of for colored girls…; it would be even better to have an update from a contemporary female dramatist that takes in Black Lives Matter and the #metoo movement. An acknowledgment of activism would add some grit to the play’s final homage to women who discover the ‘god’ in themselves. Granted, the deity we are talking about here is not your standard biblical patriarch, but the spirituality found through intimacy, love, and connection. In the words of James Baldwin, it is the religion of “seeing oneself in others and others in oneself.” Still, powerful as that assertion is, this is a time when women, here and aboard, are striding into the public arena to assert themselves and the needs of their community. Shange’s ending is about proclaiming personal strength rather than embracing confrontation, which no doubt helps explain the show’s successful presence on Broadway decades ago.
Developing that point, the recent outbreak of plays that featured women’s voices all revolved around females telling their own stories. This may be NPR’s official stance towards the role of theater, but scripts should be more than having audiences nod agreement with revelatory or inspiring stories: they pit contentious forces and ideas, each with their compelling strengths, against one another. Theater is about examining choice and conflict, exploring the ramifications (moral, existential) of decisions taken (or not taken). Drama is not just about presenting the perspective of the marginalized — as valuable as that is — but grappling with the challenge of voices in contention.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.