It starts with a step. Stomp. Clap. A crescendo of joyous movement and affirmations (“ayeee, yessss, you better”) erupts on stage and is immediately echoed by members of the audience, most notably, the Black female ones like me who came to experience this very specific brand of healing. Seven actors cloaked in the colors of the rainbow mime a game of double dutch, whipping me right back to childhood, playing in my grandmother’s concrete Brooklyn yard. How does she always do this, I wonder? How does Ntozake Shange always bring me back home?
This revival of “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf” is one link in a chain of productions re-introducing the work of our titans — Alice Childress, Adrienne Kennedy and more — to modern audiences. Only Shange’s work has been on Broadway before, first premiering at the Booth Theatre, where the revival is currently playing, in 1976. It remains a seminal, sacred text; one I’ve been able to recite phrases from for the better half of my life. This revival, by director and choreographer Camille A. Brown, is the most essential production of Shange’s masterwork to date.
Brown’s success here is justification that choreographers should be at the helm of everything. Every beat, note and lick of “for colored girls” is accented by a leap, hinge or twerk. The movements assigned to the actors transcend any one, specific form of dance. As an added testament to Brown’s skill, whenever there is stillness, it’s as if the actors are momentarily caught in the color wheel of an Alma Thomas painting, embodying the confident postures of a Kehinde Wiley tableau. For the 95 minutes it took to experience this new adaptation, I was so enthralled with the beauty splaying out in front of me, it was difficult to look down and scribble notes.
As for the women embodying our rainbow? Each one is a marvel: holding her own in vulnerable, solo monologues, and effortlessly tossing language back and forth in more community-oriented ones. They audibly hype one another up during dance breaks, always ready with a wide smile and a laying on of hands. Okwui Okpokwasili (Lady in Green), Alexandria Wailes (Lady in Purple), and D. Woods (Lady in Yellow) who reprise their roles from the 2019 Public Theater production have only gotten better. Amara Granderson (Lady in Orange), Tendayi Kuumba (Lady in Brown), Kenita R. Miller (Lady in Red), and Stacey Sargeant (Lady in Blue) fall into perfect synchrony. These artists seem to have eaten Shange’s poems for breakfast before marching, belly and mouths full, into the show. Watching Miller, in particular, recite “a nite with beau willie brown” while noticeably pregnant is nothing short of an honor to witness.
This moment is one of only a few that harken back to the tonal darkness shrouding many people’s memories of “for colored girls.” Abuse and abandonment continue to be recurring themes in this production, but the delivery is different. “latent rapist,” a poem about the disillusionment that comes when acquaintances become assailants, is delivered bluntly, devoid of melodrama by the Lady in Green. In “a laying on of hands,” a collaboration of the entire ensemble, the famous refrain “i found God in myself and i loved her fiercely” is repeated, quickly morphing from chant to rallying cry. “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff,” also performed by the Lady in Green, is righteous and shockingly funny — more a reclamation of a woman’s power, than a damnation of the man who almost walked away wid alla it. Brown’s ethos here is evident: it’s time to usher in more joy to this space.
“for colored girls” poses a rare challenge for its creative team — the “Broadway” of it all (grandiose stage, blinding lights, etc.) threatens to take away from the unfiltered rawness of Shange’s script. Fortunately, that danger is avoided. Costume designer Sarafina Bush takes a refreshing step away from the frequently-replicated dresses that draped the original Broadway cast, armoring these rainbow women in silk cargo pants, lace bralettes and other contemporary garments. Hair and Wig designer Cookie Jordan embraces styles that dance across the natural hair spectrum: box braids, textured wigs, locs (faux and authentique). Designers Myung Hee Cho (Scenic), Jiyoun Chang (Lighting), and Aaron Rhyne (Projection) marry spectacle, hue and abstract imagery to illuminate the actors’ varying shades of brown. (A special shoutout to Chang who rarely betrays Beyoncé’s golden rule about lighting Black girls in blue)! The audio and music teams meld the actors’ vocalizations into tracks of music, which blend into the choruses of praise coming from the audience. Every element falls seamlessly into place, as if the production were never a summation of parts, but always a complete offering.
Poetry was made so Ntozake Shange could write it. It’s why her words could be read in a 1970s Berkeley bar and have women falling out of their seats. Five decades later, a Broadway revival has women leaping to their feet before bows have begun. “for colored girls” cuts to the marrow of the bone, and I want to get caught up in its rapture again and again — once to look at the show with ears covered, again to hear it with eyes closed and a third time just to enjoy the fellow Black women in the audience, heart wide open.
“for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf” opened at the Booth Theatre on April 20, 2022.
Review Photo: Marc J. Franklin
Creative: Written by Ntozake Shange; Original Music by Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby; Music orchestrated by Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby; Music arranged by Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby; Drum Arrangements: Jaylen Petinaud; Directed by Camille A. Brown; Choreographed by Camille A. Brown; Associate Director: Christina Franklin; Scenic 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.
Producers: Nelle Nugent, Ron Simons, Kenneth Teaton, Ellen Ferguson and Vivian Phillips, Willette & Manny Klausner, Hunter Arnold, Dale Franzen, Valencia Yearwood, Audible, Dennis Grimaldi, Terry Nardozzi and Tracey Knight Narang, Grace Nordhoff/Mickalene Thomas, Angelina Fiordellisi/Caiola Productions and The Public Theater; Presented through exclusive arrangement with The Ntozake Shange Trust.
Cast: Amara Granderson, Tendayi Kuumba, Kenita R. Miller, Okwui Okpokwasili, Stacey Sargeant, Alexandria Wailes and D. Woods.