By Jon Dowding
Photo via Temple University.
A colored girl, dressed in red, stands center stage retelling the story of how a father killed his own two children. Surrounding her are other colored women, dressed, in varying hues of the rainbow, who listen painfully to her tale.
When she reaches the climax of her story, she collapses into tears as if each word that left her mouth was a part of her last, dying breath. After rushing to embrace her upon the ground and wiping away the tears that brought them together, one woman begins to sing “I found God in myself, and I loved her.” The other six women echo the call, which becomes more believable each time it’s repeated. As the song travels, the words “I loved her fiercely” are added to the end of the preceding phrase. The rhythmic, unifying presentation of poetry was a part of Temple Theater’s production of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange.
In recognition of the 40th anniversary of the show, Temple University hosted a free Q-and-A with Shange and the original director of the show Oz Scott on Sunday September 20. The session allowed the audience to uncover information about the show and its origins. The productions ran from September 16 to 26 at the Randall Theater.
The premise for the show, written in 1975, is based on various feelings Shange experienced before and after she attempted suicide. Each of the poems simply came to her in various intervals during the course of multiple days. Shange then performed these poems in small restaurants. These poems then were comprised, along with the help of Scott, into the Tony Award nominated and Obie Award winning show it is today.
Shange coined the term “choreopoem” to describe the show’s musical and dance elements that coincide with the characters’ poetic monologues. Music and dance continue to be very important aspects of her life. She never lived without dancing at some point. Shange often listened to Jazz, Latino and R&B music as she wrote poetry.
As she typed, the rhythm of the songs became the tempo of the poem. At times, her writing seemed to be more like rap than poetry. Other times they would float along as if carried by a breeze. The internal rhythm of her poetry along with the ensemble and dancer onstage at various intervals create a full sensory experience for the audience. The audience more than hears the poetry delivered by the actors, but sees it expressed through dance and hears it through music, all with the same, constant pulse.
Temple’s production was cast with mostly African-American women. The original, however, involved other women of color, including a Native American and Puerto Rican women. Shange explained this show was not intended specifically for African-American or black women, but for all women all women of color.
“When I was little, my grandmother used to say that I was such a pretty little colored girl. And that made me feel so precious and warm inside,” she explained. Shange believes the purpose of this show is to help spread a feeling of warmth among all colored women.
These women, who differ in age, societal status and geographic location, bond over the pain and suffering they all face. Regardless, pain makes people more vulnerable to trust, said Shange, which helps open the hope for something different. Specifically, these women are able to bond over their hopes and expression of their pain to the world. As they talk about their pain, they release and eliminate it from their lives.
The story of the mentally ill father who killed his children was the last instance of pain that needed to be released to finally unite these women. Other tales of rape, abuse, abortion and depression all plague the world women of color are subjected to.
Shange believes the show has remained significant over the last forty years because the core themes of the production are issues “colored girls” will always have to face.