Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
"Choreopoem" is a term Shange herself devised to describe this work: recitations of incidents and affirmations in language that is both direct and poetic, blended with dance and music. There is no story, or, rather, there are about 20 stories, the 20 or so separate pieces performed by these women, singly or in groups. Other choreopoems followed, by Shange and others, but for colored girls... is doubtless the best known and most enduring. The form can be seen as a descendent of Black Arts Movement theater from the 1960s and 1970s, reshaping its naturalist drama into more abstract presentations.
The stories told by the seven women, identified only by the color of their silky gowns, run the gamut from a shy account of losing virginity on graduation night, abortion, tossing out a useless man ("this note is attached to a plant I have been watering every day since you moved in. Water it your own damn self!), prostitution, a woman who tries to mask her blackness by promoting herself as a Latina, rape, being sick and tired of all the "I'm sorrys" piling up at their feet, getting lost in the ecstasy of dance, losing self-respect and finding it again, murderously abusive men, and finding peace in the laying on of hands. It portrays the bottom layers of life lived by women of color in its era, 1974-1976.
Are these issues still prevalent in 2018? Regrettably, yes, for large numbers of women, as domestic homicides, drug addiction, sex trafficking (with new, online methods) and other social ailments are still very present. Beyond that, the outward appearance of upward mobility and self-confidence for women of color in the workplace that may be seen as indications of better times, say nothing about their inner loves, the legacy of generational poverty, and the strain of building healthy relationships with men who are on the bottom of the achievement gap.
Penumbra's production does one more thing to move the 1970s sensibility of for colored girls... forward. It starts off with three African-American girls on stage, nicely dressed school girls with their hair well kept. They are identified in the program as Future 1, Future 2, and Future 3. One takes a notebook and pencil out of her back-pack and begins to write, the next draws out a book, the third a digital tablet. They giggle as they show each other their work. They are friends: safe, young, unspoiled by the world. The seven women emerge from behind the translucent screens that make up the play's set, and engage the girls, sharing in schoolyard songs and movements, jump rope. Seamlessly, the women begin to tell their stories, but we know that they are speaking to the girlsthe futureimparting the lessons learned, regrets, scars, wishes and dreams that got them moving past thoughts of suicide and on to the rainbow, to pass on to these girls their strength and wisdom, to make the future endurable, andwe can hopebetter.
Father and daughter Lou and Sarah Bellamy (he Penumbra's founder and Artistic Director Emeritus, she now serving as Artistic Director) direct the piece, giving it a seamless staging, gliding imperceptibly from one segment to the next. Sound (Drea Reynolds) and light (Kathy Maxwell) are perfectly integrated into the work, using these elements to intensify or lighten feelings. The movement sometimes has the form of elegant gestures that elaborate on the story, and other times breaks out into raucous Saturday night jams, with Ananya Chatterjea's ever-present choreography never drawing attention to itself, even as it communicates volumes.
The seven actors are all wonderful. In each new vignette, each takes on a new character and makes her instantaneously present, with no doubt about their authenticity. All move with abundant grace, and share an easy affection with one another. In addition to African-American actors, Penumbra has cast, among the seven "ladies" of color, Asian-American, African-immigrant, and Latina actors, allowing for colored girls... to expand its embrace of the women who have experienced the struggles, losses, and hard fought victories.
There are no lulls in this production, even running close to two hours without intermission. Here are some memorable highlights and the gifted actors who create them: Ashe Jaafaru recalling her youthful hero worship of Haitian liberator Toussaint Louverture; Rajané Katurah Brown's account of the night she gave up virginity, girlishly shy to start but proud of her sexuality in the end; Sun Mee Chomet, whose ranting "somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff" gives both concrete and psychological meaning to her stuff; Am'Ber Montgomery's description of Sechita, a bayou woman who draws inspiration from her namesake, an ancient Egyptian goddess; Khanisha Foster describing the claustrophobic intensity of life in Harlem; Audrey Park as a coquette who brings heartache upon herself morning after morning; and Cristina Florencia Castro's electrifying account of the terror bought on by "a night with Beau Willie Brown." When the women join in shared delivery of a poem, as in "my love is too" and the closing "laying on of hands," their harmony speaks to the power in their sisterhood.
for colored girls... had a meteoric gestation. Its first staging was in December, 1974, at a women's bar near Berkeley, California, with Shange and four other artists. After moving to New York, Shange continued work on the piece at various alternative venues, leading to a production at the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater in June, 1976. With rave reviews, and the Public Theater flush with money from its recent A Chorus Line juggernaut, for colored girls promptly flew to Broadway, opening in September 1976. That a work with a strange title by an unknown author dealing with cruel truths could leap from a bar-room to Broadway in under two years is remarkable enough. What seems a miracle is that it ran there for almost two years. The direct urgency in Shange's language seemed to connect with audiences in a way few serious dramas were able to do then, or now.
I had the privilege of seeing the original Broadway production of for colored girls..., four decades ago. At that time I was blown away by the raw emotion and survivor instincts on stage. All these years later, I am equally struck by the choreopoem's passion and energy and by the strength of these women, but also am far more able to place the work in an historical context, recognizing the times in which it was created, acknowledging centuries of deprivation leading up to the strife of the 1970s, and the amalgamation of advances and continued oppression by the stubborn persistence of misogyny and white privilege.
Penumbra's production of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf is brilliant staged, a generous gift to audiences willing to be challenged by harsh truths about our nation and those who bear the greatest brunt of our national dysfunction. But in return, those audiences experience sublime artistry and a message that hope can blossom, if we let it.
for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, through October 21, 2018, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets are $40.00, $35 for seniors; $15 for college/university students with valid ID. For tickets call 651-224-3180 or go to www.penumbratheatre.org.
Playwright: Ntozake Shange; Directors: Sarah Bellamy and Lou Bellamy; Choreography: Ananya Chatterjea; Set Design: Vicki Smith; Costume Design: Matthew LeFebvre; Lighting Designer: Kathy Maxwell; Sound Designer: Drea Reynolds; Props Master: Abbee Warmboe; Assistant Choreographer: Kealoha Ferreira; Assistant Costume Designer: Kiara Jackson; Technical Director: Zeb Hults; Stage Manager: Mary Winchell; Assistant Stage Manager: Charles Fraser.
Cast: Rajané Katurah Brown (Lady in Yellow), Christina Florencia Castro (Lady in Orange), Sun Mee Chomet (Lady in Green), Khanisha Foster (Lady in Blue), Ashe Jaafaru (Lady in Brown), Eycis Maxon (Future 1), Am'Ber Montgomery (Lady in Purple), Audrey Park (Lady in Red), Jianna Reynolds (Future 2), Quintella Rule (Future 3).