‘for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,’ by Ntozake Shange in revival at the Public Theater
You cannot watch for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf without your muscles vibrating in joy to the rhythms of the music of Ntozake Shange’s poetry. And when it is set to the dance with musicians pealing out the songs of multicultural generations with her choreopoem delivered enthusiastically in the personal languages of black women from various backgrounds using their unique words, gestures and dance movements, it is simply grand.
for colored girls... directed by Leah C. Gardner with choreography by Camille A. Brown is now in revival at the Public Theater. Originally, the work premiered on Broadway in 1976 and received a Tony nomination. Notably, it is the second play by a black woman to reach Broadway, preceded by Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. Shange updated the original choreopoem in 2010. She included additional material, the poem “positive,” and added references to The Iraq War and PTSD.
This iteration in its maverick coolness is a celebration not only of black women. It is for women everywhere. The work recalls us to a time when women reveled in the identity and unity of being female. It was a time in the feminist wave when they rejoiced being in a community of sisters from around the nation and the world. It was a time to become visible, be heard, speak truth to power, overcome, conquer. Considering the crisis and chaos the current WH administration attempts to breed in our culture in concert with a senate majority leader supportive of the white patriarchy who revel in misogyny, embrace white nationalism and leverage religion as a political tool, it is time to revisit the themes and messages of for colored girls… and view them through the lens of womenhood, including those who are most in bondage, white women.
Shange’s choreopoem as in other productions includes music and dance with some poems sung. It is performed by seven women each sporting a dress of a different color which combine to make up colors of the rainbow. As an ironic note, remember that all colors combine to create the color white representing what is sanctified and holy, if you will. Indeed, this “is enuf.”
The woman/actors depicted in Shange’s majestic choreopoem are as follows: brown (Celia Chevalier), yellow Adrienne C. Moore) blue (Sasha Allen) red Jayme Lawson) purple (Alexandria Wailes) orange (Danaya Esperanza) and green (Okwui Okpok Wasili). Together and individually, they dance to express their identities throughout the work and also listen and partake in the community by sharing their wisdom and experience. At the outset of the production, each moves to center stage where via monologue, they contribute their personal message of womanhood.
As the various women play “tag, you’re it,” the first to begin, the woman in brown, steps into herself and with her own dialect, rhythms, gestures and carriage tells a story from her youth about her love fantasy Touissant. She first read about Touissant in the “forbidden” adult section of the library. Touissant was the black general who fought for France and ended up starting his own revolution reinforcing the Haitian slaves who ignited an insurrection against their bondage. Touissant continued their work and inspired a revolution against oppression which ended in a free Haiti.
The woman in brown’s love is metaphoric and symbolic. Touissant represents freedom from enforced bondage. In seeking him as her fantasy lover, the woman embraces the freedom to be herself in a culture that attempts to nullify her voice and identity. When she shares that she meets up with a boy named Touissant Jones, she realizes that one is similar to the other in not “taking any guff” from white people. She decides in her quest for escape from white supremacy’s mores (she had planned to to go Haiti) she will continue with the real Touissant Jones and become the freedom that Touissant metaphorically represents. She will make her own place regardless of whether “they” recognize her or not, for she has empowered herself to know who she is.
Each of the women relate their personal stories in choreopoems. Some are humorous. For example, the woman in yellow shares giving up her virginity in a buick on the night of her graduation. When queried about it by the woman in blue, she tells her, “It was wonderful!” Each of the women chime in about where they “lost it.” The effect is funny and the sharing brings the group together in community. Moving in a different direction, the woman in blue riffs on her experiences running off at sixteen to dance with Willie Colon in the Bronx where she feels sublime dancing the mambo, bomba and merengue all night. But when Colon doesn’t show, she goes to a bar where she learns the beauty and subtly of musicians playing the blues. Her time center stage ends with a song/poem to the power of music and life. Sasha Allen’s voice is incredible.
The woman in red gives a lament about throwing herself into the pursuit of a lover then ending the affair, a place all the women have been as they “dance to keep from” cryin’ and dyin.'” Then there is a transition; the light signals the emotional shift which deepens into the harder subjects beginning with rape. But is it rape when you know your rapist who is a friend or close family member? Each of the women relate their wisdom and finish each other’s thoughts for all have experienced the “latent rapist’s bravado.” These are “men who know us…that we will submit and relinquish all rights in the presence of a man…especially if he has been considered a friend…”
This section is particularly powerful in light of the #metoo movement. The women in the beauty of Shange’s verse and the rhythms of their movements share how the “nature of rape has changed.” You “meet your rapist in coffeehouses sitting with friends.” We can “even have them over for dinner and get raped in our own houses by invitation, a friend.”
Sadly, these lines are even more salient today as we hear the statistics: one in three women are raped in their lifetimes and more than a few are raped more times by different men. One thinks of the power dynamic of the Harvey Weinsteins, the Matt Lauers, the Bill O’Reillys, the Roger Aileses, and all those invisible bosses or friends who laud their “latent rapist bravado” towering over subservient females while boasting about their conquests in gyms and lockers rooms, while showering together. Women reduced, vilified, hated, objectified, say little for fear of more abuse or loss of a job and career. Or they are PTSD frozen by the audacity that someone took what wasn’t theirs to take. The #metoo movement is a first step. When the “latent rapists” are in jail and the men and women they would trample over with their violence are in positions of power, this justice will indicate the culture is climbing to the mountaintop.
Whether latent or verbally harass raped or physically abused, rape is violence. There is nothing sexual about it. In the infantile man’s mind, his penis is a weapon to slay and conquer women. Nothing adult or masculine! A man’s sexuality and masculinity are expressed in tenderness, truth and soul giving as the various women point out in their comments about men and relationships. But who is mentoring these traits of grace? Certainly not the president, or Jeffrey Epstein or Bret Kavanaugh or the Republicans and others in positions of power in business, politics and elsewhere who have sexual abuse on their resumes, hidden by AMI’s “Catch and Kill” program. (Read Ronan Farrow’s titular book on this subject.)
From rape, the rainbow of women present choreopoems about abortion, domestic violence, abandonment, devastating relationships and seeking identity through sex and love. And in the sharing of their trials, hurts and losses, especially the loss of self-hood, there is a benefit. Healing comes with love and empowerment to resurrect a new self inspired by the community of women who understand and uplift.
One of the more powerful, humorous and profound presentations references how women give their self-hood and identity to men and or the culture/patriarchy. The audience responded with laughter at what the woman in green meant metaphorically and symbolically with the refrain, “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff…now why dont you put me back & let me hang out in my own self?” Okwui Okpokwasili as the woman in green is riotous in her portrayal and stance as a woman who has realized that she has been giving all of herself away to one or many who don’t really understand or want her being.
“i want my own things/ how i lived them/ & give me my memories/how I waz when I waz there/ you can’t have ’em or do nothin’ wit em/stealin’ my shit from me/dont make it yrs/makes it stolen”
Okpokwasili’s presentation resonated deeply not only with women but with men. Stealing is an analogy with the robbery of self and what one deems most valuable. In this instance, it also includes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being that has been robbed by the culture and those brainwashed into theft. Just Wow!
The most poignant choreopoem concerns soul sickness and fear in men that converts to abuse and torment. The woman in red shares the dramatic events that encompass her children’s deaths at the hands of a former partner. The pain and torment from these experiences are related to the community of women who give a laying on of hands to bring on healing. And by the end of this section and the conclusion of the production, each of the women separately then in unity chant as a chorus whose vibrations go out into the audience, “I found god in myself & I loved her/ I loved her fiercely.” At this point the women though they may have considered suicide because of what they have experienced, in the companionship of sistahs have brought themselves and each other to the end of their own rainbows, “fiercely.”
This production is momentous. Shange’s poetry shimmers on the page. The creative team makes the director’s vision equally shine with brilliance. Kudos to Myung Hee Cho (scenic design) Toni-Leslie James (costume design) Jiiyoun Chang (lighting design) Megumi Katayama (sound design) Martha Redbone (original music) Deah Love Harriott (music director) Kristy Norter (music coordinator) Onudeah Nicolarakis (director of American Sign Language).
A caveat, however, is that some of the lyricism and the poetic language is lost in the exuberance of the performers’ actions, some more so than others. Specifically, the words, the expressions in all their glory are not always clear. Sometimes, these were garbled or faded as if on the wind. That is a fabulous conception, however, it doesn’t serve the themes that can resonate and should resonate with the audience, especially the men as they learn about women, a subject they often profess to know little about. Men above all need to know the “what” of women’s experiences.
Hamilton, Lin Manuel Miranda’s work is rapped quickly, exuberantly. However, each word is treated with “kid gloves,” to add a simile, like a diamond, or precious ruby. Each word is articulated, pronounced clearly, enunciated. Why aren’t Shange’s words treated like such jewels? Every word is vital to our understanding.
I wasn’t the only one frustrated by the performers rushing over the poetry to make the production come in at a certain time. In my section of the audience, humorous segments were missed. Sitting in the round the audience opposite us laughed. The same occurred when we laughed, the audience on the opposite side were silent. Great, if that is a symbolic/thematic notion. I understand, but don’t agree if that is the intentional direction.
Shange’s poetic phrases and word choices are heady. The performers are there to tell a story, to act and be heard and understood. What Shange is saying we must understand. All of it! Okwui Okpokwasili’s “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff…” was hysterical and deep, and the audience around me laughed and enjoyed that choreopoem because she slowed down, enunciated, paused, articulated; the same occurred with Adrienne C. Moore. And Alexandria Wailes’ signing was excellent and powerful. But some of the other women at times didn’t completely come through to us. That disappointed me because I loved the production’s energy and profound themes. Despite that caveat, it is smashing!
for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf runs with no intermission at the Public Theater until 8th December. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.
If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfuka is a genre hybrid (comedy, musical, fantasy) that boasts sterling music, fine choreography and movement, and elements of the fantastic and supernatural all in the service of monolithic themes and blockbuster issues that woman have been grappling with for centuries, regardless of race or culture. In this world premiere written by Tori Sampson and directed by Leah C. Gardiner, the playwright focuses on cultural folkways of beauty as a blessing and a curse for the one who is beautiful and also for those who are the “un-beautiful” or average looking. Caveat, there are no “ugly” women or men in the play. However, when one is “the most beautiful of all,” everyone else is ugly.
Every culture has it beauty standards. However, ideals promoted in advertising, the diet industry, the fashion industry, etc., create the values of appearance fascism that render mirrors and scales the vehicles of anathema and self-excoriation for young and old women of every culture. The beauty myth is not a myth but a very real stigma that women must conquer during their lives. Unless the strength of a woman’s soul is built up, self recriminations about appearance fostered by the cultural beauty police (in fashion, advertising, etc.) greatly influence all aspects of womanhood, education, career, and can impact the friends a woman has, who she marries, the society she is accepted in and her ability to float on the currents of lifestyle both virtual and live.
The playwright makes the subject of beauty and the issues it raises front and center the first five minutes of this fanciful/magical-realism styled production with her protagonist Akim (Nike Uche Kadri) who is beautiful and thin and who the girls in her social strata resent because they do not look “as good as she.” The casting for the production is genius because all of the girls are adorable and in fact, the rival of the protagonist could be said to be more attractive, depending upon one’s subjective opinion.
The arc of the plot development revolves around the interactions of Akim with her ultra protective father (Jason Bowen), her beauty encouraging mother (Maechi Aharanwa) and her school mates who front off on being her friends to entrap and destroy her. These include Massassi (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), Adama (Mirirai Sithole) and Kaya (Phumzile Sitole). Thrown in to escalate the conflict is the romantic interest Kasim (Leland Fowler) who Massassi and Akim fight over. Rotimi Agbabiaka portrays the Chorus as he narrates and guides the action.
Sampson’s protagonist who has been sheltered by her parents and especially her Dad because he fears her beauty will bring trouble upon her, has few social guideposts to help her recognize those who are truly friendly and those who are plotting against her. Thus, as a series of events unfolds, she is blind to the wickedness of Massassi who instigates her friends to drown Akim in the river. Massassi is motivated by jealousy, insecurity and fear that Akim’s beauty will steal Kasim from her. She reasons if Akim is dead, she will free the world and herself of the daily torment and misery she experiences because Akim exists. Like the witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, who attempts to kill Snow White, Massassi must eliminate her competition to end her suffering.
The notion that beauty standards provoke evil and harm when women focus on their outer appearance to the exclusion of everything else is an unshakable cultural phenomenon. Eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia exemplify this harm; the obsession with plastic surgery and appearing youthful, undergoing physical mutilation to leave a good looking corpse at the end of life has become a fantastical reality that all women confront and succumb to or rebel against. One of Simpson’s themes in the play suggests that when individuals so concerned with appearance ignore the very reality of the soul and value of human beings, life itself and the appreciation of life’s wonders dissolve. The person becomes a vapid and empty non-person blown about by the next cultural trend or “beauty” style.
Paramount in the production is the theme that life is more than external appearances. The wholeness of life encompasses the soul, spiritual rebirth and regeneration away and apart from cultural mores that command women adhere to rigid appearance fascism. In a symbolic musical dance number, Simpson suggests the importance of spirituality to every individual when Akim undergoes a spiritual resurrection that lifts her soul beyond the attention of the physical, empirical world. The true realm of life is not the empirical, material world which one sees with the eyes but what one apprehends in one’s spirit, the invisible world of the supernatural.
With Akim’s transformation, Simpson clarifies that only spiritual regeneration can fill the emptiness and underlying void that attention to external beauty cannot fulfill. And indeed, by the end of the play, we see that encouragement to develop inner self-love and confidence obviates Massassi’s hellish, obsessive torment for not measuring up to the culture’s appearance fascism. Instead, she defines her own standards of beauty and internalizes them, focusing on her true self.
The production raises intriguing questions about how each of us negotiates cultural folkways that can be destructive if we internalize them and punish ourselves for “falling short.” The themes are powerful and varied. The arc of the play’s development moves from realism to mysticism which may be confusing to some. The conclusion ends with a construct that “all is a dream.” Yes, this is contrived, but Massassi’s dialogue brings the themes and the story together. Indeed, this play is about ideas and human archetypes. I appreciate the playwright’s intent and know the themes to be vital ones.
One caveat about performances. The finest portrayals were by the actors who slowed down, projected and didn’t allow “accents” to get in the way of the playwright’s wonderful meaning. The words are key, the dialogue is king. The audience must understand every word the actors project. This was sadly not the case in this production where the tongues sometimes tripped over the accents garbling the dialogue.
Kudos to the creative artists responsible for scenic design (Louisa Thompson), lighting design (Matt Frey), costume design (Dede Ayite) and original music and sound design (Ian Sot). Without their shining efforts, the production would have been a drab mess. Musicians Rona Siddiqui on percussion and keyboard, and Erikka Walsh on percussion and base were fantastic. Special kudos to choreographer Raja Feather Kelly whose symbolic dance numbers superbly conveyed the playwright’s themes and solidified them. Leah C. Gardiner’s excellent staging brought together the various elements to ingeniously effect this production and make it memorable.
If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must be a Muhfucka runs with no intermission at Playwrights Horizons (42nd Street between 9th and 10th) in an extension until 5 April. For tickets on their website CLICK HERE.