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Theatre in Review: For Colored Girls... (The Public Theater)

Jayme Lawson and Adrienne C. Moore. Photo: Joan Marcus

Aside from Shakespeare, The Public isn't where one sees revivals, but this new mounting of Ntozake Shange's groundbreaking 1976 "choreopoem" is a rare and welcome exception. A golden example of Public founder Joe Papp's devotion to highlighting new and marginalized voices, it is both a souvenir of a tumultuous theatrical era and a prophecy of things to come: Surely, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf is the mother of a thousand poetry slams, not to mention any number of performance artists. At the same time that novelists like Toni Morrison (and Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones) were making a new kind of fiction in which black characters existed outside the traditional white gaze, Shange was pursuing the same goal onstage, melding words and movement into a gorgeous cacophony of black women telling their stories. "Sing a black girl's song," says The Lady in Brown. (Each performer is named after the color of her costume.) "Bring her out/To know herself/To know you/But sing her rhythms/Carin' struggle hard times."

It's a testament to the piece's enduring power that it still casts a spell, despite a few oddities in Leah C. Gardiner's production. These include a set, by Myung Hee Cho, that, in its proliferation of reflective Mylar panels and dangling clear plastic tubes, puts one in mind of a 1970s disco. Also, Martinson Hall has been reconfigured with an oval stage surrounded by a couple of rows of audience seating; the need to face everyone leads to some awkward moments, and, early on, compromises the performers' audibility. (Everyone is miked, as part of Megumi Katayama's sound design, but that doesn't mean they are entirely intelligible.) The early sequences are occasionally muddily staged, with Camille A. Brown's choreography sometimes distracting from the words. Altogether, the performance doesn't fully gel until about the halfway point.

Even so, all sorts of stimulating stray thoughts shoot around the stage, setting off little bursts of fireworks in one's brain. "This must be the spook house," says the Lady in Brown, coolly eyeing the room, "Another song with no singers/Lyrics no voices/And interrupted solos/Unseen performances." The Lady in Blue, singing the blues, muses, "I could sleep with a man/I could even sing with a man/But I gotta rise with the souls of black folks/Where could the A train take me/If I don't know where I'm s'posed to go/Ellington is not a street." (Sasha Allen, as the Lady in Blue, has the kind of voice that sends shivers through the audience.) And consider this stunning piece of description: "Orange butterflies and aqua sequins/Ensconced 'tween slight bosoms/Silk roses dartin' from behind her ears/The passion flower of Southwest Los Angeles/Meandered down Hoover Street/Past dark shuttered houses where/Women from Louisiana shelled peas." Such words are as indelible as any painting.

And everything comes together for what are, arguably, the text's most famous set pieces. The first, delivered by the Lady in Green (Okwui Okpokwasili, armed with cut-glass diction and a knife-like way with a poem's rhythms), begins with "Somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff/Not my poems or a dance I gave up in the street/But somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff/Like a kleptomaniac workin' hard and forgettin' while stealin'/This is mine/This ain't your stuff." It's a hypnotic act of self-defense and self-assertion, which grows more intense and captivating with each new line. The climactic piece, a narrative about a woman confronting her ex, a damaged Vietnam veteran who invades their home and dangles their children out a window, hasn't lost an atom of its power; at the performance I attended, the finale cued a pronounced moan of dismay throughout the auditorium. (This is the moment when the piece achieves the status of tragedy; delivered by the Lady in Red, it won a Tony Award for Trazana Beverly, and at the Public, Jayme Lawson delivers it with such restrained power that no one in the theatre seems to breathe for a startlingly long moment.)

Other treasurable bits include the memory of a young girl who storms her local public library's adult reading room and falls hard for the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture; the story of a graduation night party, as told by "the only virgin in the crowd" (but not for long); and sequences detailing the coldly uncomprehending responses used against women who have been raped and the lame excuses of men caught cheating on their lovers. At any moment you're likely to be struck by a turn of phrase, an impudent thought -- a quick sketch of "a man whose ego walked around like Rodan's shadow" or a portrait of Harlem as "my universe of six blocks/Straight up black walls/Women hangin' outta windows/Like ol' silk stockings." The writing is defiant, angry, introspective, amused, sensual -- a passionate cascade of images and ideas from black women who, in 1976, were not typically invited downstage center, and who, in 2019, are still underrepresented.

Aside from those already mentioned, the committed, energetic cast includes Celia Chevalier, Danaya Esperanza, Adrienne C. Moore, and the deaf actress Alexandria Wailes, whose signing is itself a thing of beauty. Toni-Leslie James' costumes, which draw on a deeply saturated palette, are distinctively decorated with images of black women's faces; the outfits move beautifully with the performers. Until a quartet of mirror balls are deployed at the last minute for an unnecessarily glitzy effect, Jiyoun Chang's lighting is commendably understated. The effective original music, by Martha Redbone, is performed by a trio of musicians on keyboards, bass, and drums.

I suppose that, in one sense, For Colored Girls... is a bit old-fashioned; for example, if Shange were writing today, she might be more engaged with issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. But this is the rare groundbreaking work that continues to seem freshly minted. If I had to pick a few words to sum it up, they would be the Lady in Yellow's assertion that "Bein' colored is a metaphysical dilemma/I haven't conquered yet." She adds, "Do you see the point/My spirit is too ancient to understand the separation of soul and gender/My love is too delicate to have thrown back on my face." With words like these, all eight women make a most beautiful rainbow. -- David Barbour

(22 October 2019)

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