About three-quarters of the way through for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, the women of Ntozake Shange’s 1976 choreopoem recreate the oh-so-common laments of men who just can’t get it together:
lady in blue: that n—– will be back tomorrow, sayin’ ‘i’m sorry’
lady in yellow: get this, last week my ol man came in sayin, ‘i don’t know how she got yr number baby, i’m sorry’
lady in brown: no this one is it, ‘o baby, ya know i waz high, i’m sorry’
lady in purple: ‘i’m only human, and inadequacy is what makes us human, &
if we was perfect we wdnt have nothin to strive for, so you might as well go on and forgive me pretty baby, cause i’m sorry’
lady in green: ‘shut up b—-, i told you i waz sorry’
When actor Okwui Okpokwasili, who plays Lady in Green in the revival of for colored girls at New York’s Public Theater, spat out those last words from an abusive, ungrateful partner, they landed with a slap. She had to direct them at one of her sisters in color, and not some awful boyfriend, but she smiled and made eye contact with her scene partner. “I’m sorry,” she mouthed.
The show went on, and it was a moment, not even necessarily for the audience, that was easily overlooked. And yet it embodied the spirit of sisterhood that dances through this staging of for colored girls, directed by Leah C. Gardiner and choreographed by the Tony-nominated Camille A. Brown, whose work appeared last season in Choir Boy.
Shortly after Shange died at age 70 in October 2018, the Public Theater announced it would revive her most well-known work. for colored girls made its off-Broadway debut there in 1976, before moving uptown to Broadway’s Booth Theatre. With its questions and worries about sexuality, virginity, intimate partner abuse, police violence, cultural appropriation, abortion, trifling romantic partners, and sexual assault, for colored girls remains as relevant now as it was when Shange first began workshopping it in Berkeley, California, in 1974.
for colored girls came into being amid the experimental Black Arts Movement. Other luminaries of the movement, who seemed as though they would live forever, have also taken their leave in recent years — Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka in 2014, and Toni Morrison earlier this year.
The Black Arts Movement both documented and propelled social change, and something similar feels like it’s taking place in New York theater now. It is full of urgent, strange, nervy work that is interrogating whiteness and challenging who holds power in the theater and in society at large. Artists such as Michael R. Jackson, Donja R. Love, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Jeremy O. Harris, Aleshea Harris, Patricia Ione Lloyd, and Jordan E. Cooper have distilled the essence of the movement, leaving its less effective elements consigned to the 1970s, and built off what works.
Brown and Gardiner have brought forth a revival brimming with reverence and fearlessness. Their work isn’t intimidated by Shange’s position within the black canon. Instead, they embrace it, and her, as a sister and contemporary. The direction feels both new and simultaneously lived-in. Because social dance and natural movement play such a big role in Brown’s work, there’s an accessible grace and effortless modernity about this show.
The Public’s revival is staged in the round, in a space that surrounds the audience with hazy, homey mirrors. Lucite installations that resemble wind chimes, like something you might have pulled out of your grandmother’s attic, hang from the ceiling. The performers lounge among the audience when they’re not speaking or dancing.
“Just as Women’s Studies had rooted me to an articulated female heritage & imperative, so dance as explicated by Raymond Sawyer & Ed Mock insisted that everything African, everything halfway colloquial, a grimace, a strut, an arched back over a yawn, waz mine,” Shange wrote in her introduction to the published choreopoem. “I moved what waz my unconscious knowledge of being in a colored woman’s body to my known everydayness.”
Screen adaptations of for colored girls have never quite captured the essence of the choreopoem — its downtown New York theater sensibility and its grungy simplicity, born of a hunger to make art even when one can barely afford the basics to stage it. Oz Scott directed a 1981 adaptation for the American Playhouse series that included Lynn Whitfield and Alfre Woodard and expanded the world of the choreopoem to include men in the production. Tyler Perry’s 2010 feature film, which starred Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton, Kimberly Elise, Anika Noni Rose, Loretta Devine, Tessa Thompson, Kerry Washington, and Whoopi Goldberg, added a similarly unwelcome high-production-value sheen. Even though the show moved to Broadway, Shange maintained that her tastes were simpler. “for colored girls . . . is either too big for my off-off Broadway tastes, or too little for my exaggerated sense of freedom, held over from seven years of improvised poetry readings,” she wrote.
In this new revival, men are present in the words, but not on the stage. The women recount their deeds, the fun they provide, the sorrow they inflict. In between, in the margins of the words and performances, is the love black women hold for each other. This for colored girls offers a metatextual take on how black female queerness often exists in the cracks between the floorboards of our worlds. It doesn’t necessarily show up on the page, but it’s in the dreamy, flirty, sassy dances recreated by the women as they recall vignettes from their lives. In those moments, Shange isn’t just a part of the Black Arts Movement, but incorporated into the literary sisterhood of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place.
In the mirrors of the for colored girls set (designed by Myung Hee Cho), light bounces around the room, but magic does, too. The room buzzes with the love black women offer each other, both romantic and not. If a black woman enters searching for God in herself, she need only look up and around.