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Theatre in Review: For Colored Girls... (Booth Theatre)

Stacey Sargeant, Alexandria Wailes, Kenita R. Miller, Tendayi Kuumba, D. Woods, Okwui Okpokwasili, Amara Granderson. Photo: Marc J. Franklin

Forty-six years after it first stunned audiences, Ntozake Shange's classic "choreopoem" -- full title: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf -- is back at the Booth, once again unleashing a flood of poetry that is, by turns, angry, lyrical, biting, celebratory, and incantatory. Long ago enshrined as a key work of the 1970s, it has seen many revivals -- Tyler Perry, of all people, made a film of it -- but even longtime admirers may be unprepared for the explosion of sheer gorgeousness onstage at the Booth these nights. This unique work needs special handling for its full beauty to be revealed and director/choreographer Camille A. Brown and her cast are the women for the job.

In this collage of verse and dance, filled with vividly rendered details of Black women's lives, passage after passage glitters: A memory of a high school graduation night spent cruising in "a deep black buick/smellin of thunderbird & ladies in heat." (Shange, who died in 2018, employed her own inimitable shorthand and eccentric spelling.) A back-alley abortion is defined by "bones shattered like soft ice-cream cones." A lover is dismissed with some scalding advice: "Next time/you should admit/you're mean/low-down/triflin/& no count straight out/steada bein sorry alla the time, enjoy bein yrself." And when it comes to conjuring an entire world in a few lines, Shange has few peers: "Orange butterflies & aqua sequins/ensconced tween slight bosoms/silk roses dartin from behind her ears/the passionflower of southwest los angeles/meandered down hoover street/past dark shuttered houses where/women from louisiana shelled peas/round 3:00 & sent their sons/whistlin to the store for fatback & black-eyed peas."

For Colored Girls... opened in 1976 at the Public Theater before transferring to Broadway for 742 performances. History repeats itself: The current production is derived in part from a generally solid staging (overseen by another director) at the Public in 2019; along the way, however, it has been transformed for the better. In the earlier version, Brown's choreography didn't feel fully integrated into the action, Myung Hee Cho's set felt distractingly busy, and certain passages were borderline unintelligible. At the Booth, Brown delivers a seamless melding of words and movement, aided by Cho's streamlined scenic design, Aaron Rhyne's projections (featuring shifting daubs of color), and Jiyoun Chang's assured use of saturated sidelight. The sound design by Justin Ellington (new to the team) attains a fine balance of voices and the underlying incidental music -- jazzy piano chords and restless drum patterns -- by Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby. Staged in a much bigger Broadway house, the show paradoxically feels more intimate than it did downtown.

This is also due, in no small part, to the collection of spellbinders onstage. (As is often the case these days, the performance I attended featured three understudies in a cast of seven, all of whom gave assured performances.) D. Woods is gifted with sinuous limbs that seemingly take on a life of their own, reaching beyond the proscenium in a beckoning gesture as she notes, "I survive on intimacy & tomorrow/that's all i've got." Understudy McKenzie Frye makes good use of her wary smile and a skeptical glance, joining in on a litany of lame excuses offered by cheating men. ("I'm only human, and inadequacy is what makes us human, &/if we was perfect we wdnt have nothin to strive for, so you/might as well go on and forgive me pretty baby, cause i'm sorry." Frye finds every weaselly nuance in this pileup of evasions.) Tendayi Kuumba is delightful as a young girl invading the adult-reading section of the public library to learn about Toussaint Louverture; earlier, following the previously mentioned abortion sequence, she crosses the stage, offering unearthly, shattering expressions of grief. The deaf Alexandria Wailes signs with extraordinary fluency, making herself clear to everyone in the audience.

The play's signature pieces are in good hands. Alexis Sims, also an understudy, captures the impatient rhythms and mounting fury of one totting up the damage done by a disastrous relationship. ("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 kleptomanic working hard & forgettin while stealing /his is mines/this aint yr stuff"). Kenita R. Miller offers an authoritative account of "a nite with beau willie brown," the terrifying tale of Crystal, a young mother, trying to save her two toddlers from the crack-addicted title character; a piece that never fails to rivet, it climaxes in a tragedy that sends a murmur of dismay rippling through the house.

The great benefit of Brown's staging is that movement and text seem inextricably linked, informing and supporting each other; she also knows when to clear the stage, letting a single performer soar, aided only by Shange's words. All the design contributions, including Sarafina Bush's costumes and Cookie Jordan's wigs and hair, combine in a harmony that was missing at the Public. It's a coming together of elements that results in unadulterated pleasure, a night that you may hope simply won't end.

In some ways, For Colored Girls is showing its age, just a bit; it's hard to imagine a similar work being written today without incorporating issues of gender and sexual identity, for example. But if it was a blast of fresh air in 1976, both for its unusual style and its depiction of lives missing from Broadway stages, this version stands up to it, confidently and proudly. "This is for colored girls who have considered suicide/but are movin to the ends of their own rainbows," Kuumba announces. And what a glorious rainbow they make. --David Barbour

(29 April 2022)

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