For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
NTOZAKE SHANGE 1975
for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf is a choreopoem, a poem (really a series of 20 separate poems) choreographed to music. Although a printed text cannot convey the full impact of a performance of for colored girls. . . , Shange’s stage directions provide a sense of the interrelationships among the performers and of their gestures and dance movements.
The play begins and ends with the lady in brown. The other six performers represent the colors of the rainbow: the ladies in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. The various repercussions of “bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma” are explored through the words, gestures, dance, and music of the seven ladies, who improvise as they shift in and out of different roles. In the 1970s, when Ntozake Shange herself performed in for colored girls. . ., she continually revised and refined the poems and the movements in her search to express a female black identity. Improvisation is central to her celebration of the uniqueness of the black female body and language, and it participates in the play’s theme of movement as a means to combat the stasis of the subjugation. In studying this play in its textual, static format one should, therefore, keep in mind the improvisational character of actual performance and realize that stasis is the opposite of what Shange wanted for this play. In fact, in her preface she announces to readers that while they listen, she herself is already “on the other side of the rainbow” Page 22 | Top of Articlewith “other work to do.” She has moved on, as she expects her readers to do as well.
Born Paulette Williams on October 18, 1948, Shange, at the age of twenty-three, adopted the Zulu name Ntozake (pronounced “en-toe-zak-ee” and meaning “she who comes with her own things”) Shange (pronounced “shon-gay” and meaning “who walks like a lion”) as a name more appropriate to her poetic talents. She felt that her Anglo-Saxon last name was associated with slavery and her given name was a feminized version of the male name Paul. Shange once stated in an interview that she changed her name to disassociate herself from the history of a culture that championed slavery.
Shange grew up in an affluent family and read voraciously in English, French, and Spanish (the latter with the aid of dictionaries). She also associated with jazz greats Josephine Baker, Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillespie, and Charlie Parker, who were friends of her parents. She led a privileged existence, but she felt overprotected and not an active part of the Civil Rights movement taking place around her, though racism affected her daily school life in St. Louis during the family’s five-year stay in that city. She explained, in an interview with Jacqueline Trescott in the Washington Post, that “nobody was expecting me to do anything because I was colored and I was also female, which was not very easy to deal with.” After graduating from Barnard with honors, she moved to Harlem and became closely acquainted with the plight of impoverished black women in the city. The anger she felt as a result of the victimization she witnessed and experienced was expressed in the poem “Beau Willie” (later to be adapted as “a nite with beau willie brown” in for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf), which she wrote while listening to the screams of a woman being beaten by her husband, who laughed as he hit her. Shange experienced more unhappiness while briefly married to a law student, and attempted suicide a number of times. Still undecided on a career, she earned her Master of Arts degree in American studies at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, in 1973 and began teaching classes at various colleges in Northern California.
One night while driving home after teaching an evening class and feeling especially depressed, Shange saw a huge rainbow over the city of Oakland, California, and realized that women have a right to survive, because as she asserted in a 1976 New York Times interview, they “have as much right and as much purpose for being here as air and mountains do.” In that same interview, Shange explained that she realized that the rainbow is “the possibility to start all over again with the power and beauty of ourselves.” Her experience inspired the title of for colored girls . . . , composed of twenty poems she wrote over a period of years and read in women’s bars in San Francisco during the summer of 1974. She later took her choreographed poems to New York. After two years of off-Broadway performances and with the help of a New York director, Shange combined her poems and formed them into a production that ran for 747 performances on Broadway. Shange continues to write drama, fiction, and poetry, but for colored girls . . . remains her biggest commercial and critical success. She has indicated that she would prefer to be known for more than this work. She would rather be known for her current non-commercial work, including her bilingual work with Latin American working people’s theater, her association with the Feminist Art Institute, and her construction of installation art.
The play opens with seven women dressed in the colors of the rainbow plus brown, running onto the stage from various directions and then freezing in place. The spotlight picks out the lady in brown, who comes to life and performs the poem “dark phrases,” which speaks of the trials of a young black girl growing into womanhood in America. The other six women chime in—after the lady in brown says “let her be born”—as being from “outside Chicago,” “outside Detroit,” “outside Houston,” and so on. The melancholy mood shifts to a playful rendition of “mama’s little baby loves shortnin” and dance (“let your backbone slip”) and a game of freeze tag, which is interrupted by the next poem.
A theme of male assault combined with longing for male companionship is introduced, as the lady in yellow narrates, with some pride, how she lost her virginity in the back seat of a car. The other ladies Page 23 | Top of Articlevariously express their agreement with or disgust over her joy in the discovery of sex.
now i love somebody more than
Their discussion slides into this next poem, narrated by the lady in blue, who says she has Puerto Rican blood. Speaking some Spanish she describes her love of music and dancing and of the men who make music. The rest of the ladies softly join in saying “te am mas que” (“I love you more than”).
The lady in red interrupts to tell that in spite of rebuffed love she continues to “debase herself for the love of another.” But she ends in strength when she says “this note is attached to a plant/i’ve been waterin’ since the day i met you/you may water it/ yr damn self.” The lady in orange responds with a throwback to her desire for love and joy (“i wanna sing make you dance”). The rest of the ladies join in with “we gotta dance to keep from cryin,” “we gotta dance to keep from dyin.”
i’m a poet who
The dancing culminates in an declaration of pride in expression summed up by the lines, “hold yr head like it was a ruby sapphire/i’m a poet who writes in english/come to share worlds with you.”
A sudden change of light causes the ladies to “react as if they had been struck in the face,” and they collaborate on a poem describing the shock of date rape for those who expected violence to come from a stranger, “a man wit obvious problems,” and not a friend. “The nature of rape has changed” and now a woman may find violence instead of the companionship she seeks.
abortion cycle #1
Again the lighting announces a slap to the face, as the lady in blue describes her experience with an abortion as “steel rods” inside, and no one comes to comfort her because in her shame, she had told no one. She exits.
The lady in purple narrates the uneasy queenage of a beautiful biracial stage star, Sechita, who nightly dances the role of an Egyptian goddess of love in
a tawdry Creole carnival while men try to throw gold coins between her legs. As the lady in purple narrates, the lady in green dances the life of Sechita. At the end both exit and the lady in brown appears.
The lady in brown now relates how at age eight, while reading in the adult library, she discovered Toussaint L’Ouverture, the admired hero of the Haitian French Revolution of the late 18th century. Toussaint becomes her ideal imaginary black male companion until she meets Toussaint Jones, who also claims to “take no stuff from no white folks,” and who has the advantage of being in the here and now. She accepts him as a replacement for Toussaint L’Ouverture.
The lady in red narrates her story of a sequined butterfly and rose-adorned prostitute who plays her role perfectly, a hot, “deliberate coquette.” She uses mens’ desires to get what she wants, and she hopes to wound them in return, on behalf of other women “camoflagin despair &/stretchmarks.” Before dawn, she bathes and throws the man out, writes the episode into her diary, and then cries herself to sleep.
i used to live in the world
The lady in blue next describes the telescoping of her world down to a stifling six blocks in Harlem, where, if she is “nice” or a “reglar beauty,” she runs the risk of being molested by a black man in the dark. The four ladies freeze and then move into place for the next poem.
The lady in purple describes a three-way female friendship that is “like a pyramid” with “one laugh” and “one music.” They all fall in love with one man, who chooses one of them. The others fend off his attempts to betray her with them, honoring their friendship over their need for a man. Finally, the chosen one finds the rose she’d given to him on her friend’s desk. The two discover him with yet another woman, and so the three ladies join together for support and love. Sharp music interrupts them and the ladies dance away “as if catching a disease from the lady next to her,” and then they freeze.
no more loves poems #1, #2, #3, and #4
The four poems which follow are spoken by the ladies in orange, purple, blue, and yellow, respectively. #1 laments the plight of the “colored girl an evil woman a bitch or a nag” who ends up “in the bottom of [some man’s] shoe.” #2 asks to be accepted just as she is, “no longer symmetrical & impervious to pain.” #3 asks why black women (“we”) don’t go ahead and “be white then/& make everythin dry & abstract wit no rhythm” but she realizes that she can’t think her way out of wanting love even if she cannot find someone worthy to love. #4 announces that “bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical/dilemma.” All seven ladies join in a chorus of “my love is too delicate [alternately: beautiful; sanctified; etc.] to have thrown back in my face.” This leads to a celebratory dance and chant.
somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
The lady in green testifies that someone has robbed her of her memories and her things that make her who she is—everything except her poems and dance.
The ladies chime in, scorning the variations on “i’m sorry” that men have told them.
a nite with beau willie brown
The refrain “there was no air” punctuates this wrenching poem in which beau willie brown tries to force crystal to say she’ll marry him by holding their two children out of the fifth-floor window; when she can only whisper her affirmative answer, he drops the children.
a laying on of hands
All of the ladies join in declaiming the power of “a laying on of hands,” not a man or even a mother’s hug, to heal them through their own holiness. The lady in red announces that she found god in herself and “loved her fiercely.” The play ends with the lady in brown, who repeats the opening lines with the verb in present tense: “& this is for colored girls who have considered/suicide/but are movin to the ends of their own/rainbows.”
lady in blue
The lady in blue in “now i love somebody more than” says she is racially mixed (her daddy thought he was puerto rican), she speaks a little Spanish, and she loves to dance “mamba bomba merengue.” She ran away at age sixteen to meet willie colon at a dance marathon, and when he didn’t show up, she realized she loved him more than music. The lady in blue also relates the poem “abortion cycle #1” which portrays a young woman undergoing the brutality of abortion alone because “nobody knew.” Her third piece, “i used to live in the world,” describes the claustrophobia-inducing prison space of “six blocks” of Harlem, where a pretty girl risks being raped. Partway through the poem the lady in blue becomes a stalking man following the lady in orange. Finally she narrates “sorry,” a poem that expresses feeling fed up with men’s meaningless apologies.
lady in brown
The performers in for colored girls. . . are not unique characters but take on various black female identities in the separate poems. However, the lady in brown begins and ends the play, and, being clothed in the one color not present in a rainbow, she stands out among the others. The lady in brown participates in a few of the poems and relates the
poem “toussaint.” Because she is dressed in brown, she may represent the black female “everywoman.”
lady in green
The lady in green dances the poem “sechita” while the lady in purple narrates it. Sechita psychologically turns the tables on her situation and rises above the dirty carnival of Natchez, Mississippi, by making her face “immobile,” “like neferetiti” and becoming an Egyptian goddess “conjurin the spirit” of the men who throw coins between her legs Page 26 | Top of Articleinstead of allowing herself to be possessed by them. She also relates the angry poem “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff,” in which a woman realizes that by fastening her attention on a man, she allowed herself to be left “danglin on a string of personal carelessness” and she wants back her “calloused feet & quik language” and her “whimsical kiss”; her “stuff.”
lady in orange
The lady in orange plays the stalked woman in “i used to live in the world.” In another poem she defines herself as someone other than a “colored girl an evil woman a bitch a nag” only to discover that doing so leaves her no identity at all. She laments over “bein sorry & colored at the same time/it’s so redundant in the modern world.”
lady in purple
The lady in purple begins as one of the anonymous group of women, then steps forward to tell the story of Sechita (danced by the lady in green) and later tells of a trio of friends courted by one man in “pyramid.” In “no more love poems #2” she says “lemme love you just like i am/a colored girl/i’m finally bein’ real/no longer symmetrical and impervious to pain,” marking a move toward acceptance of black female identity as it is and not as an unachievable ideal.
lady in red
The lady in red narrates the poem “one” about “the passion flower of southwest los angeles,” a “hot” woman,“a deliberate coquette” who allows men to love and bed her, then evicts them before dawn, writes about the adventure in her diary, and cries herself to sleep. She also narrates the painful story of Crystal in “a nite with beau willie brown,” whose two children Willie drops out of a fifth-floor window when she whispers too quietly that she will, after all, marry him.
lady in yellow
The lady in yellow relates the poem “graduation nite” and in another poem says “bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical; dilemma / i havent conquered yet,” a statement that sums up the central problem of the choreopoem. Like the other performers, lady in yellow is not a fully developed character but one voice of many in the collective experience of black women portrayed by Shange.
“When I die, I will not be guilty,” Shange proclaimed in an interview with Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work,“of having left a generation of girls behind thinking that anyone can tend to their emotional health other than themselves.” Shange has expressed a desire to make for colored girls . . . , a play that explores the pain and promise of “bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored,” available—on library and school bookshelves or given as a gift—to young women coming of age in America. This play is to supplement the widely available information on contraception with “emotional information,” the kind of information Shange says did not get as a child, even though she grew up in an affluent, loving home. This work, like her other pieces, is meant to dispel the myths and lies that little girls hear and to replace them with something they can really use. “I want them to know that they are not alone and that we adult women thought and continue to think about them,” Shange told Tate. for colored girls. . . is an exploration, beginning with the made metaphor of including a lady in brown among those dressed in colors of the rainbow, of the concept of a “colored girl” as “a girl of many colors.” Facets of the black woman from gender- and socially oppressed victim to triumphant spell weaver and self-actualized person combine to portray a rainbow of possible selves that celebrate the black female identity.
Alienation and Loneliness
Throughout the poems of for colored girls. . . runs a persistent pattern of frustrated desire for male companionship and love. The inability to find a man suitable, meaning honorable and attentive, enough to return the love that these women have to offer causes a kind of inner death; the women “have died in a real way” by no longer knowing how to or what it means to love fully. They try various modes of defense, adopting the equally self-destructive masks of arrogance, revenge, and self-sufficiency. When each of these stances are ultimately debunked, the ladies are left alone with their pain and vulnerability. Reaching this point of self-honesty, the lady in purple announces, “i’m finally bein/real/no longer symmetrical and impervious to pain.” After its debut in 1976, the essence of Shange’s portrayal of black male-female relationships was promptly and ironically interpreted as other than it was intended by a group of male critics who accused Shange of Page 27 | Top of Articlesexism, even of man-hating. The journal Black Scholar carried a heated debate about the social responsibility of the play, a series of editorials that later came to be called “The Black Sexism Debate,” in which Shange’s conception of the black female’s role in gender conflicts was obscured. The poignant irony of this misunderstanding lies in its pepetuation of a rift between black men and women, exacerbated by some participants’ preoccupation with which party is the most oppressed. Thus, the ladies of for colored girls . . . more than ever represented the blighted and lonely status of black women in America in the 1970s.
Race and Racism
Throughout for colored girls . . . Shange uses the term “colored” (which she preferred because of its connotation of many-hued, rather than “black” or “African American,” which she considers “artificial”) as an adjective for women, not men. This is a story of the experience of “colored girls,” not black people, black men, or women in general. The lot of colored girls in Shange’s play is circumscribed by race, such that a girl who grew up thinking she “lived in the world” discovers her imprisonment in “six blocks” of Harlem. Her plight is further confined by sexism. In fact, sexism is Shange’s predominant concern, and the theme of racism in for colored girls. . . is subsumed under the context of black male-female relationships. Shange, who grew up during the height of the Civil Rights Movement and of the feminist movement, outlines how in the 1970s black female identity is affected by both social oppression and the domination of black men. The effect of her play was to cause “both [the white feminist and the predominantly male black power] movements to question their exclusion of African-American women, to question their own complicity in racism and sexism,” according to Karen Cronacher in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays.
for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf is a choreopoem, a poem (really a series of 20 separate poems) choreographed to music. The performers dance the poems as well as narrate the lines. These are not poems set to
music with accompanying dance steps, but an integration of movement, gesture, and music that together comprise the choreopoem. Improvisation is central to the choreopoem, allowing the performer to adjust the performance to her own mood and that of the audience. Shange invented this medium as a way to produce a new space for the expression of black culture, a medium that would not be judged by the stifling conventions of European and American theater because it defies definition.
As the title of the choreopoem implies, the rainbow is a predominant symbol in the play, one consciously applied to the ladies’ costumes, which are the colors of the rainbow, plus brown. The presence of brown in the rainbow of colors symbolizes black identity within the rainbow of existence. The rainbow itself signifies the multiplicity of experience and the many facets of identity. “The rainbow is a fabulous symbol for me,” Shange explained in a quote from an article by Mark Ribowsky that appeared in Sepia magazine, “If you see only one color, it’s not beautiful. If you see them all, it is. A colored girl, by my definition, is a girl of many colors. But she can only see her overall beauty if she can see all the colors of herself. To do that, she has to look deep inside her. And when she looks inside herself, she will find . . . love and beauty.”
The twenty poems of for colored girls. . . were written and read at women’s bars in San Francisco long before Shange decided to weave them together into a formal dramatic production. Thus, each poem exists and stands on its own, often narrated in monologue (a dramatic sketch performed by one actor) by one of the ladies, while the other performers look on, encourage, or enact the story. The collection of monologues narrated by different performers (not characters per se because they take on different roles) gives a sense of multiple perspectives, of fragmentation. However, each fragment amplifies the others such that they are unified by a common theme, the rendering of black female identity.
Leitmotif is defined as music that signifies an idea, person, or situation. Musical motifs run throughout the play. Besides the music and dance that are integral to the choreopoems, music and musical terms are used as metaphors to describe the condition of “colored girls,” which moves from disharmony to wholeness in the course of the play. In the opening poem, words and phrases such as “half-notes,” “without rhythm,” “no tune,” “themelo-dy-less-ness of her dance” evoke an image of clumsy discord for young black women who have been denied their girlhood. But by the end of the play, all of the ladies dance and chant together in harmony and evidently have found a rhythm that expresses their identity fully. Music also lures women dangerously toward men, as when a virgin, pretending sexual prowess while dancing to the Dells” ‘Stay,” later loses her virginity to her one of dance partners; it is also a refuge against men, as the lady in purple implies when she says “music waz my ol man.” Sometimes it allows women to transcend reality for a time but but only temporarily. Sechita finds a source of power in music, using dance to “conjure” the cracker men in the audience of a tawdry carnival. Ultimately, music becomes part of the harmony of the black female identity.
The 1970s: Counterculture Gives Way to Skeptical Indifference
In the 1970s ongoing protest against the war in Vietnam finally resulted in a massive withdrawal of American troops, culminating in the Fall of Saigon in 1975. The war had cost America billions of dollars, 56,000 U.S. lives, and the credibility of the U.S. military. It would have cost President Nixon his credibility, had he not already sullied himself with Watergate, a cover-up that failed as one by one his minions, fearing prosecution, exposed Nixon’s extensive and illegal system for spying on the Democratic party. Confidence in the government hit an all-time low and inflation instigated a pervasive sense of pessimism about the future. Young people sought refuge in the sudden abundance of discotheques, where they gyrated to formulaic and repetitive tunes that required little thought or imagination; other forms of escapism prevailed.
The Civil Rights Movement Collides with the Feminist Movement
While the Civil Rights Movement contained an inner conflict between militant Black Panthers and Malcolm X and the passive resistance promoted by Martin Luther King, Jr., the feminist movement was a virtual study in contrasts. Barbie doll sales hit the first of many sales peaks in 1963, just when women were proclaiming their right not to be measured by an unhealthy physical ideal. Twiggy, a skinny model weighing no more than 95 pounds, exemplified the new antifeminine figure. At the same time that the popularity of hotpants and topless bathing suits contributed to revealing female fashions, women expressed resentment at being viewed as sex objects. Miniskirt hemlines shot up and then dropped to maxi ankle-length in 1972, around the same time that many women expressed a preference to be addressed as Ms. instead of Mrs. or Miss. Pantsuits replaced the requisite skirt at many workplaces. The first black Barbie doll hit the market in 1968, the same year that Shirley Chisolm became the first black female member of the House of Representatives. During this period of sexual upheaval women’s lib consisted of sexual freedom bordering on licentiousness (made possible by the widespread availability of the birth control pill in the early 1960s) oddly coupled with the suppression of sexuality as a marker of female identity. Divorce rates began a climb that did not slow for several decades as women became economically and socially self-sufficient.
Unfortunately, neither the Civil Rights Movement nor the Women’s Liberation movement made a viable place for black women. This situation would change, partly as a result of Shange’s play. African Americans, no longer referred to as colored people, sought to amend their identity by embracing
their African heritage. Alex Haley’s 1976 epic, Roots, played a large role in the popularity of African heritage and raised many African Americans’ awareness of their own genealogies. Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun had tangentially alluded to potential difficulties for African American relations with Africans, specifically for black women. In the play, Beneatha Younger cuts her hair in an afro style, dons African dress, and plays African music, but she refuses to marry her African suitor and relocate to Africa, preferring the more obstacle-ridden course of pursuing a career as a doctor in racist America. Her plight remains unresolved at the end of the play. By the 1970s, black female identity was still largely subsumed beneath black identity and female identity. For Shange to proclaim in 1976 that black women were oppressed was not news but to declare that they were oppressed by black males (in addition to white society as a whole) was a revelation. Shange showed that black women existed on the bottomost rung of the social hierarchy. The budding women’s movement crossed paths with the growing civil rights movement to reveal that black women were doubly oppressed.
The expression of rage in for colored girls. . . , directed primarily at black males, caused a stir in 1976. The journal Black Scholar ran a series of debates on black sexism. Robert Staples voiced the sense of shock felt by some black men that black women would turn against their racial brothers, and black women accused Staples and others who expressed similar opinions of ignoring the ways in which black males did in fact oppress their racial sisters. It is a debate that lost its intensity over the next ten years as black women found strength in their racial and gender identity. Ultimately black women rose in social status so that by the 1990s black men stood on the bottom of the social hierarchy, a situation that prompted the Million Man March on Washington D.C., an event organized by Louis Farrakhan in 1995.
Drama in the 1960s was a forum for challenging convention, for experimenting with new styles. The stage musical Hair in 1967 introduced nudity, shocking language, and celebration of the hippie lifestyle, an aesthetic that valued personal expressions Page 30 | Top of Articleof uniqueness and freedom over more mainstream, middle-class values, and shocked the nation on its wildly controversial road tour. In 1969 Oh, Calcutta, a series of erotic sketches, made Hair look tame in comparison. In 1971 Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar committed what many felt was a sacrilege, namely conflating religion with Broadway spectacle, to huge success. However, rising inflation in the 1970s slowed the impetus of experimental theater. One of the few notable works produced besides for colored girls . . . was The Wiz, a version of The Wizard of Oz in which the characters are black and the settings are urban. The play began a run of over 1,000 performances in 1975. By this time such novelties as audience interaction, open staging, unconventional costuming, and revolutionary content had become theatrical stock-in-trade. Musicals no longer consisted of the blithe romance of a Rodgers and Hammerstein production; now audiences expected to be shocked and challenged as a form of entertainment. In black theater Imamu Amiri Baraka (also known as LeRoi Jones) broke with tradition by producing works centered on racial confrontation. Shange adopted his radical use of slashes, lower case letters, phonetic spelling and dialect as well as his militant program of making theater a center for consciousness-raising for black rights and for building the black community. Baraka expressed the belief that theatre was more effective at reaching a wider black audience than were other media, Shange (the second black female playwright to have her work produced on Broadway, the first being Lorraine Hansberry) proved that theatre could be just as effective at reaching white audiences.
Taking for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf to New York City in 1976 entailed polishing the act for a more demanding, theater-sophisticated audience than the appreciative and supportive mostly female audiences in the cafes and women’s bars of San Francisco. Shange, just twenty-seven at the time, relied on theater director Oz Scott to transform the twenty separate poems into a unified and cohesive play, sharpening the theatrical elements along the way. The predominantly black audiences of the Joseph Papp Anspacher Theater production reacted with obvious pride and exhilaration. Alan Rich’s review for New York magazine treated the play as an anomaly, “respectable plays by blacks being a comparatively new phenomenon.” Clive Barnes, who in 1982 would include Shange’s choreopoem in the 8th edition of Best American Plays, expressed appreciation in his 1976 New York Times review for the fact that, rather than make him “feel guilty at being white and male” the play made him “proud . . . with the joyous discovery that a white man can have black sisters.” But not all of the reviews were so positive. Theater critic John Simon did not share the sense of euphoria, snidely asking in his New Leader review: “Is this poetry? Drama? Or simply tripe? Would it have been staged if written by a white?”
Literary critic Neal Lester, writing in 1995, suggested that Simon’s inability to appreciate Shange’s innovative work stemmed from a need for a new critical language that would assess the choreopoem on “its own cultural and aesthetic terms.” The concept of a play in which the plot proceeds through music and dance was not without precedent; West Side Story (1957) was not so much a musical, a drama with music added, but a ballet or opera with dialogue added. Broadway had just experienced a transformation of theatrical conventions in the form of long-running hits, Hair (1967), Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar (both 1971), and A Chorus Line (1975), that took for granted the integration of music and action. However, even in these landmark works, poetry, music, and improvisational dance had never before been fused together with such force and integrity as Shange accomplished, and the new critical language required to discuss the “choreopoem” on its own terms would be a while longer in coming.
Reviews of the Broadway debut of for colored girls . . . were mixed. Theater critic Jessica Harris applauded the play for being the first popular success by a female black playwright who, rather than proffer the expected stereotypes, portrayed the black female condition truthfully. But negative reactions came from African American men, who focused on the negative portrayal of black males. Their voices were included in a series of essays in Black Scholar later to be known collectively as the Black Sexism Debate. From an outsider’s perspective it looks like a turf battle over which group was more oppressed. Robert Staples, quoted in an African American Review article by Lester, saw in the play “a collective appetite for black male blood” and complained that the characters portray circumstances far from his own personal experience. Furthermore, Staples interpreted the “laying on of hands” conclusion of Page 31 | Top of Articlethe play as a dangerous move toward narcissism. He chided Shange for failing to explain how black men suffer in self-respect at the hands of black women. According to Lester, also author of Ntozake Shange: A Critical Study of the Plays, “Staples’s comments are typical of the partriarchy’s reversing the roles of victim and perpetrator.” Shange herself replied to Staples and other contributors in the form of two poems, “is not so gd to be born a girl” and “otherwise I would think it odd to have rape prevention month.” In all, the Black Sexism Debate filled forty-eight pages of the May-June 1979 edition of the journal. It was followed by a spate of assertions in Black American Literature Forum, Black Scholar, and elsewhere that Shange demonstrated compassion and integrity in her ruthlessly honest portrayal of a few black males in for colored-girls . . . , that her intent was not to malign black males but to paint reality as it was for African Americans of both genders.
As the black sexism debate lost its fury, later critics found new ways to discuss the choreopoem. One way looks at the ideology expressed in it—Sandra Richards in 1983 explored the conflict experienced by characters who “ricochet from a devastating social reality wherein they are totally vulnerable to an ecstatic spirituality wherein they are identical with an eternal, natural power.” Another focuses on the performance aspect of the choreopoem; John Timpane in 1989 argued that the improvisational character and collage structure of the performance and even the creative orthography of the script work to undermine audience expectations for closure and tidy structure. This resistant dramatic structure thus serves to create new possibilities for the identity of those it celebrates; according to Timpane, “it is used to challenge preconceived notions, show unexpected connections, and call forth the richness and dynamism of existence.” Tejumolo Olaniyan in 1995 focused upon the play’s use of language. Quoting Shange as asserting “After all I didn’t mean whatever you can ignore. I mean what you have to struggle with,” Olaniyan aligned the playwright with French linguistic philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, who says that language joins in the oppression of a victim by making it impossible to express the crime. Shange has asserted that her predicament has led her to “attack deform n maim the language that i was taught to hate myself in.” Olaniyan explored the way in which Shange’s improvisational use of language succeeds in molding a language that can both express the crime and reconstitute the victim.
Shange and numerous critics have noted that the era for which she constructed for colored girls . . . was unique in history, short-lived, and that the play no longer fits the social reality of some black women, although many still find themselves trapped in similar situations. However, the timeless power of the piece continues to command audience attention through its improvisational dance and its fusion of unique language, structure, and meaning.
Carole L. Hamilton
Hamilton, an instructor of English at Cary Academy, discusses Shange’s departures from conventional drama.
Shange has asserted that the form of the conventional play is too restrictive; in her introductory essay to three pieces, which was quoted in Ntozake Shange: A Critical Study of the Plays, she called it “a truly european framework for european psychology” which cannot serve as a medium in which to express black culture, psychology, and sensibility. In that same essay, she explained that because she views American theater as “overwhelmingly shallow . . . stilted, and imitative,” she insists upon calling herself a “poet or writer” rather than a playwright. Indeed, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf has more in common with poetry, music, and dance than with traditional theater scripts, but it is certainly good theater—good dramatic theater—as well. In a departure from conventional theater, she jettisons characters and plot, instead presenting transient performer/characters who portray an apartment house of stories. Within each apartment, each episodic poem, lives a black girl, trying to escape the confines of an oppressive society. Yet even though Shange has done away with plot, there is a progression within the poems that explores the “metaphysical dilemma” of “bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored.” The play ends with a sense of closure as though the dilemma has been accepted or understood and fully expressed, and, if not resolved, on the way to a solution. Typical of Shange’s style, she coins a new term for her dramatic work—“choreopoem,” a choreographed poem. Her poems are not just accompanied by music and dance, but “danced poems” in which dance, movements, and gestures express as much meaning as do the words of the poem.
Movement and innovation are key themes in for colored girls . . . and are important concepts in all of Shange’s work. She sees herself as creating a new place where her “voices” (her characters as well as her thoughts),“can be heard, where they can move around, they can dance or they can hear music that they want to hear,” as she explained in an interview with Angela Davis in 1989. In removing the structure of the conventional play and focusing on her invented medium of choreopoem, which she alone does best, Shange withdraws her work from the range of sniping (white, male) critics. She finds this an exhilarating place to be and has described it as being “at war with and making love to the world at the same time,” as quoted in Ntozake Shange: A Critical Study of the Plays.
Dance carries differing meanings within for colored girls. . . . Sometimes transcendent moments of joy in movement and dance are halted by harsh reality. The poem “latent rapists” interrupts celebratory dancing at the end of “i’m a poet who” with a sudden change of light that causes the ladies “to react as if they had been struck in the face.” They stop dancing and withdraw into themselves. This arrest of movement announces the topic of date rape, a situation in which trust is betrayed by overpowering domination and violence. Domination, whether by physical force such as in rape or through the social strictures of living in a white-dominated world, imposes a stultifying order over these women.
Dancing and movement also makes the women vulnerable. To dance is to participate in life to the fullest degree and yet a young girl may pay a terrible price for a night of celebrating joy in dance and sexual awakening, as described in “abortion cycle #1.” The young girl who danced with complete abandonment suddenly finds herself on a hospital Page 33 | Top of Articlegurney, alone and strapped down for an emotionally and physically torturous procedure. There is no escaping, however, the urge to dance and be completely alive. In “no more love poem #3” the lady in purple realizes that she doesn’t want to “dance wit ghosts,” that the only way to live is to interact with men and pay the consequences. The lady in yellow regrets her “dependency on other livin beins for love” because she knows that her love will only be “thrown back on [her] face.” Nevertheless, the ladies continue to long for male relationships. That the men in this play—with the possible exception of Toussaint Jones—never live up to women’s expectations of them has been interpreted by some as an invective against black males. Shange sees this perspective as limited and limiting because it once again takes the focus off of women and places it on men.
In an earlier poem, Sechita, a tawdry carnival dancer, tries to evade the vulnerability of dancing by adopting a mask. She “made her face immobile/ she made her face like nefertiti” as a defense against the whoops of the drunken men of the carnival audience. Then Sechita uses the very dance meant to display her like a piece of merchandise to turn the tables on her audience so that rather than being the object of their lewd gazes, she becomes an Egyptian goddess performing a rite, “the conjurin of men,” holding them in thrall. Through her performance she improvises a place of honor where none existed before, a commendable effort.
However, even the triumph of Sechita, kicking out her leg in vicious command, is a kind of failure because ultimately, she is alone. She is like the “passion flower” who, with a different kind of mask, lures men to her bed in order to reject them before dawn, succeeding at punishing them for having the arrogance to want her but still crying herself to sleep after recording her exploits in her diary. Thus, the immobility of the mask is itself stultifying and serves only to remind a young black woman that she cannot “survive on intimacy & tomorrow” if she has no one with whom to share it. It does no good to adopt a false stance because the stance itself prevents intimacy. Even though intimacy may bring pain, it is better to risk being vulnerable, to be “real/no longer symmetrical & impervious to pain” and possibly find love and fulfillment.
Unfortunately, some young black women are victimized by the kind of intimacy that socially wounded black men offer. In “a nite with beau willie brown,” Crystal holds too tightly to her children, and her act of immobility destroys them and her. She too finds it impossible to engage in a mutually responsive and responsible dance with a black man. Throughout the poem, movement vies with stasis and neither Crystal nor Willie is capable of reading the signs around them or from each other. If they could, perhaps they might move beyond their psychologically-impaired marriage. Willie, a Vietnam War veteran, keeps getting placed into in remedial reading classes and cannot secure a good job. He is depicted as “an ol frozen bundle of chicken” sweating in his bed. When Crystal gets pregnant a second time, he beats her. She combats his violent behavior by getting a court order denying him access to his children. When he comes to visit her, apparently wanting to prove himself a good husband and father at last, Crystal is too mired up in the pain of their past to move toward him. She holds her children tight to her, so that getting possession of them becomes his sole objective. They fight each other with forms of entrapment, the weapon that society has used upon them. The refrain “there waz no air” weaves through the poem, suggesting a universal suffocation. In response to Willie’s demand for public acceptance of him, Crystal can only whisper in his oppressive presence. Her voice fails her because, metaphorically speaking, she has no “voice” in her relationship or in her world. Because her lackluster response fails to satisfy Willie, he drops the children out of the fifth-story window. If Crystal had been allowed to have a voice, she might have stopped Willie; if she been able to improvise, she might have risen above their past, allowing him to respond in kind. But there “waz no air.”
Movement is a means to escape stasis or imprisonment. According to critic Olaniyan: “In the hands of the dominated but rebellious poet, the slippery, unfixable forms, music and dance, become instruments for breaking down and reaching beyond the claustrophobic dominated space.” Harlem is a closing tunnel, a six-block universe, where a girl has to turn up the music loud until “there is no me but dance.” The dancer escapes the fetters of an uncivil society, albeit only briefly. Transcendence is merely a form of escapism, a temporary respite during which one manages to ignore reality for a time. But movement can also serve as a means of creating and maintaining a strong sense of self. Once she overcame the misperception that the black female body is not ideal, Shange discovered that dance can meld body and soul into a more harmonious unit. As Shange explains in the preface to for Page 34 | Top of Articlecolored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf: “With the acceptance of the ethnicity of my thighs & backside, came a clearer understanding of my voice as a woman & as a poet. The freedom to move in space, to demand of my own sweat a perfection that could continually be approached, though never known, was poem to me, my body & mind ellipsing, probably for the first time in my life.” The improvisational movement and dance of for colored girls. . . transcends limiting reality and leads to the unlimited realm of creativity and self-actualization.
The lasting qualities of Shange’s work lie in the production of a new vision of self-black female self. Improvisational performance and dance participate in this production, as do gesture and language. For in language, too, Shange practices improvisation. She is quoted in Ntozake Shange: A Critical Study of the Plays as asserting: “I like the idea that letters dance, not just that words dance, of course, the words also dance.” To make words and letters dance, Shange eliminates capitalization and punctuation and spells phonetically. More than dialect, her language is new one, a fusion of poetry and vernacular. The lady in green refers to it as her “quik language.” Quik language is witty, creative, incisive—oral poetry invented on the spot and for the moment only, in phrases like “push your leg to the moon with me.” This new language refuses to be bound by conventional orthography. Even when Shange needs punctuation to indicate a pause, she invents her own, inserting virgules (/), normally reserved for marking off poetic feet, as short stops. In her introductory essay to three pieces, Shange explained her unconventional use of language: “i haveta fix my tools to/my needs,” she said “i have to take it apart to the bone/so that the malignancies/ fall/away leaving us space to literally create our own image.” The convergence of quik language with “quik feet” and music “like smack” brings into being the “felt architecture” that Shange likes to create. In this emotional environment, a colored girl can experience what Flannery O’Connor termed “moments of being,” flashes of self-actualization in a world that makes such moments precious indeed. Shange explains her emphasis on improvisation in her manifesto entitled “takin a solo/a poetic possibility/a poetic imperative.” Weaving her own poetic theory among snippets of poems by Ishmael Reed, Leroi Jones, Victor Hernandez Cruz, and others, she proclaims, “i am giving you a moment/like something that isnt coming back.” For the audience, trying to comprehend the spectacle, her moments may prove puzzling. Shange clearly articulated her motive in an interview with Claudia Tate: “I can’t let you get away with thinking you know what I mean. I didn’t mean whatever you can ignore. I mean what you have to struggle with.” Struggling with what she means is a fruitful exercise in mental improvisation. Just as inserting the color brown into the rainbow presents a potential new definition of “colored girls,” Shange’s work also succeeds in redefining the rest of the world as well.
Source: Carole L. Hamilton, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.
Lynn F. Miller
In the following review, Miller explores the structure and style of for colored girls. . . . She credits both Ntozake Shange and director Oz Scott with creating a stirring poetic enactment of a black girl’s initiation into womanhood.
Miller is an educator and critic who has worked extensively with women in the visual and performing arts.
Joseph Papp has developed a system for moving talented new playwrights, directors, and actors from workshop beginnings through Off-Broadway productions to Broadway. For Colored Girls has successfully followed the Papp program: from its beginnings as a workshop production at the Henry Street Settlement Playhouse, to an Off-Broadway production at the Public, and on to the Booth.
For Colored Girls has a wider appeal than its title suggests; it is not for black women only, although the experiences culled and given life on the Booth stage are directly related to the lives of many black women. Ming Cho Lee’s huge red paper peony up center, placed in front of the deep purple backdrop, is the only scenic element; it is all that is needed, standing as it does for the unified heart, brain, gut, womb, and center of being not only of the “colored girls” in the title but of all women. The purity, incisiveness, and truth of the writing reaches into the red flower at the center of all women; universal truths, drawn in detail, spill out in well-controlled poem-monologues from the actresses on stage directly into the emotional receivers in the guts of the audience. It is the directness of the emotional communication that electrifies the audience.
By means of his arrangement of Ntozake Shange’s autobiographical poetry pieces, each an investigation into a particular aspect of private Page 35 | Top of Articleblack womanhood, the director, Oz Scott, has created a form resonant of a rite of passage. The passage is from girlhood and innocence, through adolescence and the beginnings of self-discovery, into adult suffering through love, and finally to self-acceptance. The action of the piece—finding and accepting oneself—has been created by structuring the poems into a pattern as sensitive as flowers arranged by an Ikebana artist.
While not a traditional play, For Colored Girls is essentially theatrical, rooted in rite, ceremony, and mythology. The characters experience deep conflicts, and a resolution is achieved. In structure the work is musical, resembling jazz riffs, once improvisationally emerging directly from street experience, now structured like Ellington’s music into notations that record and codify joyfulness, melancholy, or a sense of tragic despair. With choreography by Paula Moss (also one of the actresses), the poems insist on being danced as well as acted.
Judy Dearing’s costumes confirm the importance of movement in the piece; they are really dance costumes that free the actresses’ bodies for any movement. The most superb moments are in the poem “Sechita” evoking African goddesses of the distant past through the recreation of a cabaret dancer in New Orleans. The poem is expertly spoken by Rise Collins and danced by Paula Moss.
There are elements of comedy, tragedy, and biting satire in the production. The most vividly tragic piece, “Nite with Beau Willie Brown,” produces near-hysterical laughter culminating in tears. A crazed black war veteran beats his abused lover with a highchair in which their baby still sits, an unfamiliar, savage image, offbeat and almost surreal, as are many of the images in this piece.
Ntozake Shange has served up slices of her world. For some people this reality is intolerable, requiring the defense of laughter. Even for Shange, reality is too much sometimes. In “I Used to Live in the World (But then I Moved to Harlem),” the poet lashes out with bitterness at the shrunken existence in such a constricted universe.
Rites of initiation traditionally culminate in a vision of the godhead. For Colored Girls, structured as an initiation rite into full adult womanhood—passing through the stages of life in concretely remembered specific experiences—culminates in the joyous affirmation of the beauty and integrity of the black woman’s self. It is a rousing yet delicate,
strongly felt spiritual dedicated to the earthy reality of the great goddess/mother/source-of-all-life, sincerely perceived by Shange to be a woman, probably a black woman. (pp. 262-63)
Source: Lynn F. Miller, in a review of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 29, No. 2, May, 1977, pp. 262-63.
In the following excerpt, Clurman offers a positive review of for colored girls . . . declaring: “There is no black (or white) sentimentality here, no glamorizing of Harlem or any other ghetto existence; there is the eloquence of moral and sensory awareness couched in language powerful in common speech and a vocabulary both precise and soulfully felt.”
Highly regarded as a director, author, and longtime drama critic for the Nation, Clurman was an important contributor to the development of the modern American theater.
I hope a way may be devised to arrange a national tour to a presentation I recently saw at the Henry Street Settlement’s New Federal Theatre (on Grand Street) in cooperation with Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre: it was for me a signal event.
It is called For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. . . . Its author, St. Louis-born Ntozake Shange, is a young woman who appeared as one of its performers and is now an artist-in-residence of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. She calls her piece a “choreopoem”—poems in verse and prose to be voiced singly, in pairs or in unison by four actresses and three women dancers, with occasional accompanying
music. The women hail from various parts of the country.
Because the text is composed of a series of poems of decided literary worth, I first thought that the performance would have greater impact if they were recited so that no word was lost through movement. But as the evening went on (and on examining the script) I realized that my first impression was mistaken. The faces and bodies as well as the voices of the actresses give the occasion its special force. Much credit for the success of the event is also due to its director, Oz Scott, who saw the “play” in the material.
In a number of respects this work is unique. Its stress is on the experience of black women—their passionate outcry, as women, within the black community. There is no bad-mouthing the whites: feelings on that score are summed up in the humorously scornful lines addressed to a black man which begin: “ever since I realized there was someone callt a colored girl, a evil woman, a bitch or a nag, I been tryin’ not to be that and leave bitterness in somebody elses cup. . . . I finally bein real no longer symmetrical and inervious to pain . . . so why don’t we be white then and make every thin’ dry and abstract wid no rhythm and no reelin’ for sheer sensual pleasure. . . .” The woman who utters these words, like all the others, speaks not so much in apology or explanation of her black condition but in essential human protest against her black lover whose connection with her is the ordinary (white or black) callousness toward women. Thus she asserts “I’ve lost it/touch with reality/I know who’s doin’ it. . . . I should be unsure, if I’m still alive. . . . I survive on intimacy and to-morrow. . . . But bein’ alive and bein’ a woman and bein’ colored is a metaphysical dilemma.”
This gives only a pitifully partial notion of the pain and power, as well as the acrid wit—“so redundant in the modern world”—which much of the writing communicates. The thematic emphasis is constantly directed at the stupid crudity and downright brutality of their own men, which, whatever the causes, wound and very nearly destroy their women. These women have been driven to the very limits of their endurance (or “rainbow”) and are desperately tired of hearing their men snivel that they’re “sorry.” Part of the joy in the performance lay in the ecstatic response of the women in the audience!
There is no black (or white) sentimentality here, no glamorizing of Harlem or any other ghetto existence; there is the eloquence of moral and sensory awareness couched in language powerful in common speech and a vocabulary both precise and soulfully felt. . . .
Source: Harold Clurman, in a review of forcolored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, in the Nation, Vol. 222, no. 17, May 1, 1976, pp. 541-42.
Baraka, Imamu Amiri. “Black ‘Revolutionary’ Poets Should Also Be Playwrights.” Black World, April, 1972, pp. 4-7.
A manifesto for black playwrights to use the theater as a platform for demanding social change.
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A treatise on the influence of black female playwrights with part of one chapter devoted to Shange.
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Smith, Yvonne. “Ntozake Shange: A ‘Colored Girl’ Considers Success” in Essence, February, 1982, p. 12.
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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2692700011