Camille A. Brown’s revival of Ntozake Shange’s 1976 Broadway landmark brings exuberant life to a play that celebrates Black women’s solidarity in the face of pain.
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Don’t be fooled by the scaffolding that wraps around the exterior of the Booth Theater, doing its dour best to look uninviting. Inside is a Broadway homecoming celebration that you will not want to miss: the triumphant return of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf” to the stage where it was a hit in 1976.
Triumphant, that is, because the director-choreographer Camille A. Brown’s thrilling and exuberant revival breathes warm, kinetic life into a canonical work that has been known to suffer from being treated — as it was at the Public Theater two seasons back — with a well intended but stifling reverence.
Brown’s staging is so attuned to the words and cadences of Shange’s choreopoem, yet so confident in its own interpretive vision, that the characters blossom into their full vibrancy. If you’ve never thought of “For Colored Girls” as a funny show, be prepared for Brown’s seven splendid performers to persuade you otherwise. They will also pierce your heart, because this production does not shy from the emotional and existential lows that coexist with the play’s highs.
Yet this sensual revival leads with joy — and, in its opening moments, with the voice of Shange, who died in 2018. First we hear the recorded squeals and shrieks of children at play. Then, piped over them, Shange, framing with gentle affection what is to come. Apparently speaking to a child, she asks her to imagine “all the stories we could tell” about “little colored girls” just like herself.
Mind you, “For Colored Girls” is not aimed at small fry; its collection of verse monologues contains plenty of talk of grown-up sex, physical violence and emotional trauma. With characters named for the colors of the rainbow (and costumed accordingly here by Sarafina Bush), it has always been a love letter of sorts to Black girls and the women they become, and to the sustaining power of female friendships, from childhood on.
And so Brown builds echoes of playground games, with their body language of youthful delight, into some of the dance and song. Periodically, we also hear the lub-dub of a heartbeat. (Sound design is by Justin Ellington.)
This revival, of which the Public is a producer, is a descendant of the Public’s 2019 staging directed by Leah C. Gardiner, which Brown choreographed. With some of the same artistic team as the current production, it also had a few of the same cast members, among them Alexandria Wailes as the graceful, ASL-signing Lady in Purple. Brown’s production is completely new, but it is shocking nonetheless how much fresher, and more of a whole, her invigorated iteration feels — and how beautifully it manages to embrace the audience, even from a proscenium stage in a considerably larger house.
The simplicity of Myung Hee Cho’s screen-based set — abetted by Aaron Rhyne’s color-saturated projections and Jiyoun Chang’s lighting — puts the focus on Shange’s language and Brown’s choreography. Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby’s rhythm-driven original music complements but never overwhelms; conducted by Deah Love Harriott, it’s played by a three-piece band (drums, electric keyboard, electric bass).
The show’s movement has a fluid freedom that reminds me of a Shange line about a long-ago Sun Ra show in “Dance We Do: A Poet Explores Black Dance,” her posthumously published book: “The drummers made me wanna take off my clothes and celebrate the world.” That’s how much Shange lived in her body, and so do the women in these poems.
While no actor takes off her clothes in “For Colored Girls,” Brown (whom Shange interviewed for that book, by the way) has a tactile, from-the-inside-out understanding of how motion is embedded in the play’s language, inextricably. And as meticulous as Brown is about choreography and connection — replaced by stillness and isolation in the play’s poems of anguish, to devastating effect — she is just as precise about textual lucidity and depth.
That includes the comedy, as when Tendayi Kuumba’s Lady in Brown slips into the character of a bookish Black 8-year-old who, in the summer of 1955, conjures an imaginary friend: the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture.
It’s a brilliantly funny interlude, and a reminder that this child — bursting as she is with intelligence and particularity, and already in search of kindred spirits — deserves the world. That the world does not cherish her as it ought to is one of Shange’s main points about all of the women in “For Colored Girls.” Thus the play’s enduring function as a source of solace, affirmation and commiseration.
When the Lady in Red (Kenita R. Miller, eight months pregnant and resplendent in a peekaboo-belly wrap) tells a male lover who does not deserve her, “I am ending this affair,” her itemized grievances have us thoroughly on her side — and then she lands a terrific punchline. These actors, all of them, are hilarious at deflating male posturing.
Still, “For Colored Girls” aches with the tension between the longing for devotion, the desire for sex and the need for dignity. Also the precariousness of preserving a sense of self — as the chagrined Lady in Green (Okwui Okpokwasili) discovers, courtesy of “a lover I made too much room for.”
These women — who include the Lady in Yellow (D. Woods), the Lady in Blue (Stacey Sargeant) and the Lady in Orange (Amara Granderson) — do not have great luck with men, and Shange caught plenty of flak from Black men who did not like the way she portrayed them. She objected to their objection, and noted: “‘For Colored Girls’ was and is for colored girls.” (That means Shange didn’t write it for me, either, I realize.)
The dire grimness of one of its longest poems, about a violent, drug-addicted Black veteran named Beau Willie Brown, attracted criticism, too; George C. Wolfe satirized it in his 1986 play “The Colored Museum.”
But Shange also said: “I am not a sociologist. These are writings about feelings.”
“For Colored Girls” is an assertion of the right to own all of the feelings and all of the colors of experience. It pulses and pulses with life, singing a Black girl’s song.
And in Brown’s sublime and supple channeling, we hear Shange with exquisite clarity.
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf
Through Aug. 14 at the Booth Theater, Manhattan; forcoloredgirlsbway.com. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
Review: ‘For Colored Girls’ Returns, Leading With Joy – The New York Times