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

Theatre Review by James Wilson - April 20, 2022

for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange. Directed and choreographed by Camille A. Brown. Set design by Myung Hee Cho. Costume design by Sarafina Bush. Lighting design by Jiyoun Chang. Sound design by Justin Ellington. Projection design by Aaron Rhyne. Hair and wig design by Cookie Jordan. Original music by Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby. Music direction by Deah Love Harriott. Music coordination by Tia Allen.
Cast: Amara Granderson, Tendayi Kuumba, Kenita R. Miller, Okwui Okpokwasili, Stacey Sargeant, Alexandria Wailes, and D. Woods.
Theater: Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street.

Stacey Sargeant, Alexandria Wailes, Kenita R. Miller,
Tendayi Kuumba, D. Woods, Okwui Okpokwasili,
and Amara Granderson

Photo by Marc J. Franklin
Sometimes theatre history has a wonderful way of repeating itself. In 1976 Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf transferred from the Public Theater to Broadway's Booth Theatre, where it ran for 742 performances. A new production directed by Leah C. Gardiner opened at the Public in 2019, and the current iteration, which has been redesigned, restaged, and–except for two holdovers–recast, is back at its old stomping ground, the Booth. If there is any theatre justice, it will remain there for a very long time.

for colored girls is closing in on 50 years old, but it has never seemed so vibrant, so vital, and so utterly urgent as it does right now. This is my fourth experience with the show, and each time, Shange's text reveals new hidden treasures, and its capacious spirit allows for any number of imaginative interpretations. The latest incarnation is directed and choreographed by Camille A. Brown (who choreographed the 2019 version), and in a remarkable feat of artistry, the choreopoem–as Shange described the piece–feels even more intimate and engaging than it did Off-Broadway.

The show's seven-women ensemble represents a spectrum of Black experience, and each performer is designated by a color of the rainbow (with "brown" swapping in for "indigo" and each delineated by Sarafina Bush's vivid costumes). The dramatic conceit is best summed up by Lady in Yellow (D. Woods), who describes the "metaphysical dilemma" of "bein' alive and bein' a woman and bein' colored." The women use stories, lyrical poems, dance, and songs to try to "conquer" this dilemma. And at its heart, this is a show that explores the myriad ways of expressing joy, grief, trauma, and sexual desire.

Language (and words in particular) serves as a pulsating and vigorous life force in the play. We see, for example, the childhood delight in the rhythms and rhymes of jump rope songs and chants, which is effervescently captured by Lady in Orange (Amara Granderson). Later, Lady in Brown (Tendayi Kuumba) movingly describes her adolescent literary crush on the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture. His name, with which she swirls her tongue around every accented syllable, fills her with yearning and rebellious determination.

In another segment, the women demonstrate how language is often used carelessly (especially by men) to make excuses for bad behavior, and as a result, the "I'm sorries" simply accumulate and take up too much emotional space. As Lady in Blue (Stacey Sargeant) wryly explains, "I'm gonna haveta throw some away/ I can't get to the clothes in my closet for alla the sorries." And in one of the sharpest and funniest monologues of the evening, Lady in Green (Okwui Okpokwasili) conveys the existential feeling of losing oneself in a relationship, perfectly encapsulated by the refrain, "Somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff."

Sometimes mere utterances can't convey the deepest sorrow. One of the most powerful moments occurs when Lady in Brown is bereft of speech and struggles to grunt, moan, and incoherently articulate something that exists only as a primal scream. Alternatively, Lady in Purple (Alexandria Wailes) uses sign language to show that the allure, grace, and weight of words do not come just from oral expression.

A few of the monologues, such as the story of a carnival dancer or a woman who uses her sexual magnetism as a form of revenge, work better on the page than they do on the stage. These lyrical lapses are quibbles, though.

When words will not suffice, dance, as the women explain, is necessary to "keep from cryin'" and to keep from "dyin'." Brown exquisitely combines elements of Afro-Caribbean, Latin, and hip-hop, and the choreography further deepens our understanding of the women both individually and collectively. (Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby have provided stirring original music.) Dance is the glue that binds the women in sisterhood, and the unique personalities of the characters and actresses come through in their movement.

The centerpiece of any production of for colored girls is the climactic Beau Willie Brown monologue delivered by Lady in Red (Kenita R. Miller). The story about abuse and death provokes gasps and tears no matter how familiar one is with the details, but it is even more devastating in the current telling. A visibly pregnant Lady in Red is alone without her sisters for support. Starkly lit, she is presented alongside neon lines outlining the rigid, box-like shapes of urban apartment buildings and tenements. (Jiyoun Chang designed the outstanding lighting, which works effectively with Myung Hee Cho's simple sets and Aaron Rhyne's mood-enhancing projections.) The horrors of the narrative are made even more manifest with the profound aloneness of the character.

At one point in the evening, Lady in Orange underscores the forcefulness of "we" versus "I." While every performer on stage is remarkable in her own right, the glory of this for colored girls is the way in which the singular women draw strength and power as a group and simultaneously embrace the audience within their big, bright, and beautiful rainbow.