Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sexism. Racism. And Rainbows.

In 1971 Paulette L. Williams, a student at Barnard College, attempted suicide. In addition to the recent breakup of her short marriage, she had struggled for years with feelings of alienation and depression, likely exacerbated by the racial taunts and attacks she had endured as a child following Brown v. the Board of Education. But throughout it all, her well-to-do parents always encouraged her artistic expression. Growing up, guests to her family's home included Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, and W. E. B. Du Bois.

Williams's involvement in the Woman's Studies Department at Sonoma State College and discovery of dance eventually helped her heal. She changed her name to Ntozake Shange, which means "she who comes with her own things" and "she who walks with lions." In the introduction to her Obie-winning play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Shange writes that, "Knowing a woman's mind & spirit had been allowed me, [and] with dance I discovered my body more intimately than I had imagined possible." In 1975, For Colored Girls, inspired by Judy Grahn's The Common Woman and the feminist theater work of Halifu Osumare, was performed for the very first time at the Bacchanal, a woman's bar outside Berkeley, California. By 1976 it was appearing on Broadway, where one witness recalls that ". . . all sorts of people who might never have set foot in a Broadway house - black nationalists, feminist separatists - came to experience Shange's firebomb of a poem." In September 2009, Tyler Perry announced plans for a film adaptation starring Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Whoopi Goldberg, Macy Gray, Kerry Washington, Kimberly Elise, Phylicia Rashad, and Jurnee Smollett.

Shange describes For Colored Girls as a "choreopoem." It's basically a series of nineteen connected poems recited by six women identified only by the color of their clothing: yellow, purple, red, green, blue, and orange. While some take the form of rambling monologues, there are also brief snippets of verse exchanged back and forth among the women, as though they were a group of friends engaged in conversation.
lady in blue
that niggah 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 bitch, i told you i waz sorry'
This deeply intimate feel is reinforced by Shange's use of very down-to-earth speech and metaphors to describe complex emotions and the deep psychological concepts of identity, internalized oppression, and coping with the pressures of racism, sexism, and classism. A near-loss of self and pride suffered in an unhealthy relationship, for example, is portrayed by the "lady in green's" monologue about how "somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff."
somebody almost walked off wid all my stuff
not my poems or a dance i gave up in the street
but somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
like a kleptomaniac working hard & forgettin while stealin
this is mine / this aint yr stuff /
now why dont you put me back & let me hang out in my own self
somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
& didnt care enuf to send a note home sayin
i waz late for my solo conversation
or two sizes too small for my own tacky shirts
what can anybody do wit something of no value on
a open market / did you getta dime for my things /
hey man / where are you goin wid alla my stuff /
this is a woman's trip & i need my stuff /
to ooh & ahh abt / daddy / i gotta mainline number
from my own shit / now wontchu put me back / & let
me play this duet / wit this silver ring in my nose /
honest to god / somebody almost run off wit alla my stuff /
(In the video below it's the "lady in red" for some reason.) The weighty themes are further balanced by a good dose of humor, such as the story of a precocious young girl who ventures into the Adult Reading Room at the library, falls in love with TOUSSAINT L'OUVERTURE, and then meets a boy her age named TOUSSAINT JONES.

There is also, of course, dancing and movement throughout that reinforces the spoken word. At one point, which must be striking to see onstage, the ladies are all dancing and urging one another to find joy in herself and her worth to the world. Then the stage direction calls for a sudden change in light and for the ladies to "react as if they had been struck in the face." Then:
lady in blue
a friend is hard to press charges against

lady in red
if you know him
you must have wanted it

lady in purple
a misunderstanding

lady in red
you know
these things happen

lady in blue
are you sure
you didnt suggest
Unlike The Vagina Monologues, the ladies of For Colored Girls do not sit and rely solely on the emotional resonance and intensity of their lines to carry the play. They are constantly in motion, using both voice and body equally to express themselves.

My initial thought was actually that For Colored Girls was going to be similar to The Vagina Monologues, as a group of female performers each take a turn talking about the struggles and the lessons they've learned as women. There is an element of that, but For Colored Girls is not simply a play. When reading drama, there is always a tension inherent to the solitary, internal act of reading a work meant to be seen and heard, with each actor bringing their own interpretation. During the recent group read of Tennessee Williams's The Night of the Iguana, for instance, some participants felt that the dialogue was rather over-the-top but also wondered if being recited onstage or onscreen toned it down.

For Colored Girls, however, is equal parts poetry and can easily be read as such. In that way, it functions both as a group event and a personalized experience. Shange's words alone carry immense weight, and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf is not soon to be forgotten.

Thanks to Tami for introducing me to this excellent work.


Related Posts with Thumbnails