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Review: In For Colored Girls…, Survival and Celebration Are One and the Same

Camille A. Brown brings Ntozake Shange's choreopoem back to Broadway 46 years after its debut.

Stacey Sargeant (Lady in Blue), Amara Granderson (Lady in Orange), Okwui Okpokwasili (Lady in Green), Tendayi Kuumba (Lady in Brown), Kenita R. Miller (Lady in Red), D. Woods (Lady in Yellow), and Alexandria Wailes (Lady in Purple) in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.
(© Marc J. Franklin)

"Bein' alive and bein' a woman and bein' colored is a metaphysical dilemma I haven't conquered yet." Ntozake Shange's Lady in Yellow first spoke those words in the civil rights- and second-wave-feminism-soaked 1970s, intimating a sense of possibility in that hopeful word, "yet." And yet, Shange builds this elusive promise of someday into For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf as if to send us on a quixotic journey to the end of its titular rainbow. It's been over 40 years since the abstract "choreopoem"'s first Broadway run, and the new ensemble of seven women performing For Colored Girls… (which has circled back to its original Broadway home at the Booth Theatre) is no closer to conquering that metaphysical dilemma. But neat resolution would only cramp Camille A. Brown's invigorating production — a celebration of Black, female community that finds a pot of gold in its company's embrace.

Brown — Tony-nominated for choreographing the 2019 production of Choir Boy — choreographed the 2019 revival of For Colored Girls… at the Public Theater (where the piece also had its 1976 New York premiere). For this Broadway mounting, she adds director to her title, expanding her physical sensibilities to those of character and design for this mural of poetic monologues joined by sound and movement (kudos to the balanced sound design by Justin Ellington). Her actors make up her vibrant color palette: Kenita R. Miller (Lady in Red), D. Woods (Lady in Yellow), Tendayi Kuumbra (Lady in Brown), Okwui Okpokwasili (Lady in Green), Alexandra Wailes (Lady in Purple, performing her dialogue in beautiful ASL), Stacey Sargeant (Lady in Blue), and Amara Granderson (Lady in Orange). Each wields her hue with personality, highlighted by Sarafina Bush's modern, monochromatic costumes that flow with Brown's choreography (and to my personal delight, give each woman the unfettered freedom of pants). Introduced with home cities that span from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, they are decidedly singular, but coalesce into a unit that radiates love and light.

Tendayi Kuumba (center) as Lady in Brown and the cast of For Colored Girls...
(© Marc J. Franklin)

Light is the essence that jumps out of Brown's production in every regard (including but not limited to Jiyoun Chang's lovely lighting design and projection designer Aaron Rhyne's glittering star that takes center stage in Myung Hee Cho's airy yet magisterial set). From the innocent schoolyard dance Brown crafts, to the sing-songy folk tune "Shortenin' Bread," to a ceremonial eradication of the men who don't appreciate the "delicate," "sanctified, "beautiful" love these grown women have to offer, the movement is always collective, uplifting, and joyous — even when it comes on the heels of events that are lonely, crushing, and mournful. And the latter are not rarities in the lives these seven women portray.

Okpokwasili, as Lady in Green, delivers the iconic "somebody almost walked off" speech — a bitter harangue against the man who tried to strip her of her spirit piece by piece and an emboldened reclamation of every last bit. Sargeant, as Lady in Blue, falls from the rapture we see in her Mambo-dancing ode to music as she recounts the trauma of visiting an abortion clinic alone. And Miller, as Lady in Red, tells us a story of horrifying domestic abuse in the climactic "nite with beau willie brown" speech — a marathon that Miller, who is performing the show while eight-months pregnant in real life, runs with stunning control and vulnerability. I don't know how she's doing it.

The Black, female experience — with all its metaphysical dilemmas — is written by Shange as complicated, multivalent, and indeed, colorful. With a title that puts the words "suicide" and "rainbow" on either side of a slash, it shouldn't be too surprising to find yourself laughing and cheering one moment and utterly devastated the next. The topics and experiences are heavy, but you can feel Brown constantly searching for the light. She dares to lean into the text's humor and levity, giving her actors leave to bring a conversational tone to speeches that can feel austere when delivered more lyrically. The sounds of poetry, of course, still resonate — but the sounds of humanity are what pierce through.

The cast of Camille A. Brown's Broadway revival of Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls..., now running at the Booth Theatre.
(© Marc J. Franklin)
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