KC Rep and KC MeltingPot Theatre Present Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls” on the First Anniversary of the Playwright’s Death
Ntozake Shange, a playwright, poet and novelist who died last October, was only the second African-American woman to see her work produced on Broadway. That 1976 theater piece — which Shange described as a “choreopoem” — was “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf.”
Unlike its Great White Way predecessor — Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic “A Raisin in the Sun,” which premiered in 1959 — “For Colored Girls” was anything but traditional in its theatricality. Yet the show, which featured seven Black women and blended poetry, dance and music, enjoyed mainstream success and is arguably Shange’s masterpiece.
This season, “For Colored Girls” is scheduled for two Kansas City productions: on Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s Copaken Stage from Oct. 18 through Nov. 10, and in a KC MeltingPot Theatre production at Just Off Broadway Theatre from Dec. 5 through 15.
In the show, which revolves around monologues and movement, each of the women is dressed in a color of the rainbow: blue, brown, green, orange, purple, red and yellow.
Shange “had a unique voice and a unique point of view and was able to just really home in on different perspectives of what it is to be a Black woman,” said Khanisha Foster, director of the Kansas City Rep production. “And yet they all feel connected — and when you work on the play, you feel like they’re all her story.”
Nicole Hodges Persley, artistic director of KC MeltingPot, described the choreopoem as “a very important work, and a coming-of-age story for many Black women.” Also, she said, “For Colored Girls” does not subscribe to “a monolithic idea of what Black women can be. That’s where the rainbow comes in.” The KC MeltingPot production is directed by Lynn King.
In performance, “For Colored Girls” unfolds as a series of related vignettes that sweep the audience up in an experience that reflects the tragedies and triumphs, and the exasperation and exhilaration, of being an African-American woman.
Among the strengths of the piece is its poetic fluidity, as suggested by this passage from “No More Love Poems #4”:
lady in yellow
my love is too delicate to have thrown back on my face . . .
lady in brown
my love is too beautiful to have thrown back on my face
lady in purple
my love is too sanctified to have thrown back on my face
lady in blue
my love is too magic to have thrown back on my face
lady in orange
my love is too saturday nite to have thrown back on my face
lady in red
my love is too complicated to have thrown back on my face
lady in green
my love is too music to have thrown back on my face
Certain “ladies” in the piece tell certain kinds of stories, Foster said.
“Blue has a tranquility and a maturity about her,” she said. “Red tells the stories that are really hard to tell. Purple gives in to the beauty of language. Yellow is very youthful.
“But each one is so unique — I think of it as, at least for this production, that light that shines from within, that makes you uniquely you,” Foster said. “And I also think that each actor will find the power within their own color, and what that means and how that connects.”
AN American theater success storY
Shange, who died Oct. 27, 2018, at age 70, was born in Trenton, New Jersey, and spent part of her childhood in St. Louis. A “New York Times” obituary noted that she “expanded the sense of what was possible for other Black female artists.”
In 1982, “For Colored Girls” was adapted for the PBS television program “American Playhouse.” In 2010, a film adaptation was released, directed by Tyler Perry and featuring a cast including Kerry Washington, Janet Jackson and Whoopi Goldberg.
“For Colored Girls” is one of American theater’s great success stories. After performances at a women’s bar in Berkeley, California, and on several New York stages, an off-Broadway production of the choreopoem opened at the Public Theater in June 1976. (The theater is reviving the show in October.)
“The New York Times” called the show directed by Oz Scott “a lyric and tragic exploration into Black woman’s awareness. Not that Miss Shange is sorry for herself or any of her sisters, she is angry and contemptuous . . . Of course, Miss Shange writes with such exquisite care and beauty that anyone can relate to her message.”
“The Times” was equally enthusiastic when the show transferred to the Booth Theatre on Broadway that September, noting that “uptown or downtown, in a bar or at the Booth, ‘Colored Girls’ is a play that should be seen, savored and treasured.” Shange, who played the Lady in Orange, was only 27 years old at the time. The production would go on to receive a Tony Award nomination for best play.
As triumphant as “For Colored Girls” was critically and commercially, one of its vignettes prompted condemnation as an attack on Black men. In “A Nite With Beau Willie Brown,” a Vietnam veteran (later updated to an Iraq veteran) reacts to rejection from a woman named Crystal by dangling their two children from a fifth-story window. She can only look on as he succumbs to his rage:
he kicked the screen outta the window/
& held the kids offa the sill/ you gonna marry me/ yeh, I’ll
anything/ but bring the children back in the house/
he looked from where the kids were hangin from the
fifth story/ at alla the people screamin at him/ &
he started sweatin like he did in Baghdad/ say it/ say it/ say to
neighbors/ you gonna marry me/
I stood by beau in the window/ with naomi reaching
for me/ @ kwame screamin mommy mommy from the fifth
story/ but I cd only whisper/ & he dropped em
In an introduction to the published script of “For Colored Girls,” Shange addressed the controversy.
“Despite his horrific actions, Beau Willie is a strangely empathetic character,” she wrote, further noting that “there are more negative images of Black men in your average rap song or television cop show than in my choreopoem.”
And the merits of “For Colored Girls” as a work of art — and, after more than four decades, its continuing resonance in African-American culture — transcend any perceived shortcomings.
“When we can go to the theater, and we can watch somebody tell our stories,” Foster said, “it helps us to see ourselves.