On March 19-23, 2014, the Boston College Theatre Department presented Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, directed by John Houchin, aided by visiting Monan Professor of Theatre Arts Robbie McCauley and choreographer Pamela Newton.
“When I set out three decades ago for New York, I never realized what for colored girls was destined to become. I look back now with awe as gray slate clouds, ominous and dense, give way to a pastel prism of color, dancing across the sky. And I look forward to discovering even more colors to add to the rainbow that is this colored girl’s wonderful journey.” –Ntozake Shange, July 2010
There exists no clear distinction between stage and audience at John Houchin’s production of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. With dim crimson lighting and the drawls of Ella Fitzgerald overhead, the scene alludes more to a New Orleans speakeasy than a black box theatre at Boston College. The audience members might feel they are being invited for a glass of wine at various café tables arranged across the space. What they will imbibe is a spirit of a different kind.
The actresses emerge from the shadows like Greek muses. Bold hues cling to their clothing and to their manners, and it is immediately clear how well the set design fits. For colored girls is a play with constantly shifting borders—it crosses right into the viewer; it reaches across the threshold of the (non-existent) proscenium into the soul of an individual.
Shange’s work invites the audience into the text, into the language, making it accessible to anyone willing to receive it—and perhaps even those unwilling—while retaining every inch of brazen truth in the subject. The production shifts seamlessly from dance, to speech, to song, a true testament to the chorepoem, a genre invented by Shange specifically to fit this unclassifiable piece.
This seamlessness carries the entire presentation. Lady in Brown (Kate Henry) delivers her opening monologue, an inspired call to explore the narrative of the black woman (“are we ghouls? children of horror?”). In a burst of color, the women revert to a childlike state of play, weaving between audience members at their café tables in a game of tag. As the women dance and laugh together, one can’t help but beam at the genuine connection between them.
And so begin the speeches. The other women recline nearby, melded into the audience. They remain alive and present in each moment, and throughout the rest of the performance, their audible responses—approval, distaste, laughter—become indistinguishable from those of the audience.
Lady in Yellow (Monica Wright) sweetly recounts her last night as a virgin; Lady in Blue (Ashlie Pruitt) relates to her Hispanic roots and love in a different language. The mood is light, and the women sway to the beats of rumba and salsa.
Lady in Red (Raven Tillman) presents the first instance of a woman scorned, describing a plant as a metaphor for a failed relationship on which she has exerted much effort (“you may water it yo damn self”).
Suddenly, a strobe light flashes, an explosion occurs, and the actresses tumble to the ground. They slowly recuperate, horror and grief on their faces, perhaps symbolic of the next topic: rape and its complexities, including how often a woman knows her rapist.
From this point forward, the play takes on a more serious tone—though, true to the interwoven nature of the piece, it has its moments of much-needed comic relief. Lady in Blue’s heart-wrenching lament of her abortion leaves many in the audience sniffling. One of the most vocally powerful in the play, Lady in Purple (Sydney McNeal), narrates the scene of a strong woman, Lady in Aqua (Medina Geyer), on a quest to be unattainable, “a memory and a wound to any man arrogant enough to want her”, but it is a path that leaves her unfulfilled and lonely. McNeal’s connection to her speech was palpable throughout the performance, a truly magnetic presence on the stage.
The play progressed in exploring themes that are often left untouched. Shange’s work gained instant renown because of its revolutionary nature. She treats a subject that lay aching for a voice: the narrative of the African American woman in all its realities, both beautiful and ugly. It is a requiem for the black woman, by the black woman, as it escapes from Lady in Orange’s being in a delivery charged with resolve (Ashley Branch): “this is a requiem for myself.”
At one point, Lady in Blue satirizes the stereotypical portrayal of black women: “We deal with emotion too much…let’s be white, then!” which is received with humor by the audience. One of the play’s trademark speeches was performed fiercely by Lady in Green (Toluwase O Oladapo): “Somebody almost walked off with all my stuff!” Oladapo commanded the stage, driven by a core force that captured her character’s struggle and resolution to overcome.
I am still unprepared to describe the final monologue, delivered by Lady in Red. Having seen various film productions of for colored girls, including Tyler Perry’s 2010 version, I knew what was coming; nonetheless, I was wholly moved by Tilman’s dynamic gift for storytelling. She entranced the audience in a harrowing moment-to-moment retelling of a manic father who throws his two small children out a five-story window to the horror of their mother.
Because the women are identified by colors, they are not anchored to any single character. Shange has empowered these stories with a universal reach, as a means of identification and perhaps consolation to colored women, and as a projection of these poignant stories for the rest of the world to glean some insight.
Director Dr. Houchin worked with choreographer Pamela Newton and visiting Monan Professor of Theatre Arts Robbie McCauley, who was a member of the 1976 Broadway cast of For colored girls. I had the pleasure of seeing McCauley’s one-woman show Sugar in December.
As an advocate for playwrights of color at Boston College, I was elated to witness a moment in history: the first all-black cast in a production at Boston College. It is crucial that this kind of work is presented here. A well-rounded education involves access to cultural diversity as more than a one-time required course in the curriculum. What’s more, the overwhelmingly positive reception of this production is evidence that the community concurs.
It is bittersweet that this performance sold out all six of its nights so soon. I would have liked to see it two more times. A revisiting of the film version will have to do. I congratulate all the artists involved with this production of for colored girls—it has surely left its mark on the hearts and minds of the Boston College community.