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The Red-Hot Truth About For Colored Girls

Tyler Perry, Janet Jackson, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, and Loretta Devine discuss the new film version of Ntozake Shange's play.

Tyler Perry
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
All-star casts are nothing new to the world of cinema, but the combination of Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise, Whoopi Goldberg, Macy Gray, Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Tessa Thompson, and Kerry Washington -- the stars of Tyler Perry's For Colored Girls, the new screen adaptation of Ntozake Shange's Pulitzer Prize-winning play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, which opens on November 5 -- is practically unprecedented.

"From beginning to end, I just felt very grateful to and for Tyler because who else could have done it?" says Washington, who made her Broadway debut last season in Race. "The creative capital that he's built in this industry has allowed him to be the person who could make this project happen and then he also had the emotional intelligence to do it right and to be a collaborator. I mean who would come to this material unless they were committed to telling this story."

While it's logical that Shange's powerful collection of women's voices would resonate with the man who created Madea, the most successful black female power symbol this side of Oprah, Perry recalls that it took a lot of convincing for him to take on the project.

"Somebody first brought the play to me years ago but I said, 'No!'" he notes. "Then somebody else brought it to me and then Whoopi brought it to me -- she wanted to do a revival on Broadway and I wasn't really interested. But after the fifth time, I said, 'Okay God, something's here. It was intimidating because it means so much to so many people, especially women -- not only women of color, but just women."

Phylicia Rashad in For Colored Girls
(© Lionsgate Films)
Indeed, Rashad believes the message of Shange's work hasn't dimmed at all in the past 35 years. "Early on, we would all sit in the make-up trailer and we would talk about this piece and one day it just came to us -- collectively ---that all women in the world are 'Colored Girls,' because the color that Ntozake is referring to is not the color of our skin," she says. "It has to do with mood, heart, spirit, experience, emotion, and expression -- our standing or the lack thereof. I think when we understand women correctly, society changes. When women understand ourselves correctly, we change society.

Like some all-female poetry slam, the play was originally performed by eight actresses, each portraying several of the myriad un-named "Girls" of the title, and each of whom was described only by the color of her dress. The women related a variety of experiences, some of which concerned their relationships with cheating or abusive men.

The film features a much more narrative story than the play, now focusing on a disparate group of women, several of whom live in a Harlem tenement under the watchful eye of the building's manager, Gilda [played by Rashad]. Moreover, the men in their lives (played by Michael Ealy, Omari Hardwick, Richard Lawson, Khalil Kain, and Hill Harper) -- both good and bad -- are quite visible onscreen, which was a particular concern of Perry.

While he made significant changes to the play, Perry was determined to also remain faithful to the spirit of the source material. "As I followed each story, I went back to Ntozake's work," says Perry, who collaborated with Shange on the screenplay. "What I had to do was try and mimic the music and the melody of it as much as I could in my dialogue to make sure that when each woman went into one of her poems, it all fit."

Each of the women's lives intersects in very dramatic ways, as the women go on what Perry calls "journeys, walking through life to find God or yourself and loving yourself." And each actress does turn in individually outstanding work. "I just asked everybody to bring their truth and that's what these actresses did," says Perry. "They brought their truth so what you see on screen is coming from a real place and that's why it works so well."

Loretta Devine in For Colored Girls
(© Lionsgate Films)
Not surprisingly, Perry asked Jackson to be part of the film, having worked with the pop singer and actress on three former occasions. She plays Jo, a high-powered magazine editor, and the star says she found her inspiration for the role in an unusual way. "I watched a lot of old movies about strong businesswomen," she says, especially citing Katharine Hepburn as a role model.

Conversely, Tony Award winner Rose says she found everything she needed to play Yasmine, a date-rape victim, in the script. "There was no process, just the words. I just wanted to live Shange's words."

Although most of the actresses knew about the play, only Devine had actually auditioned for the original New York production -- and was offered the role. "I was still in school and I got cast so I really had to make a choice of whether to do the play or finish grad school and I chose school. Now everything has come full circle and I'm glad I did," she says.

Indeed, the actress, who is best known for her work in the Broadway and film version of Dreamgirls, remembers a time when there wasn't any theater about black women. "Ntozake changed all that and she didn't leave out any experience, from abortion and abuse to love," she says. "Tyler made sure we got to keep all of the emotions that she wrote way back then."