Still connecting, 25 years later

THEATER

`colored girls' reconceived for a new production at Center Stage

January 02, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

In Center Stage's fifth floor rehearsal hall, three actresses -- Katherine J. Smith, J. Ieasha Prime and Lizan Mitchell -- are winding themselves in and out of a yellow, 40-foot-long shawl. "Three of us like a pyramid/three friends," they say, using the immense piece of fabric to bind themselves together, then separate into the points of a huge triangle, whose outline is formed by the expanse of sinuous yellow cloth.

The women are rehearsing a scene from Ntozake Shange's groundbreaking 1975 play, "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf." Reconceived by director George Faison, the production begins performances Friday at Center Stage's Pearlstone Theater.

When "colored girls" arrived in New York a quarter century ago -- moving swiftly from a neighborhood bar to off-off Broadway, then off-Broadway and Broadway -- it was unlike anything the mainstream theater had seen before.

A collection of poems written in free verse and performed by seven actresses identified only by the bright colors of their costumes, the play was distinguished as much by its bold content as its unconventional form.

"It was basically the first play that had been on Broadway written by a black woman since Lorraine Hansberry -- almost a 20-year absence," says Judlyne A. Lilly, a Hyattsville-based playwright and news anchor at Washington radio station WTOP, who is serving as associate dramaturg on Center Stage's production.

But unlike Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," which chronicled an entire family, "colored girls" was exclusively about women. And Lilly says, "it was not set against a white landscape." For many black women, Shange's play was the first time they had seen their own stories on stage.

A groundbreaker

Actress Mitchell was working at the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta when "colored girls" was produced on Broadway. "I was so excited about a play that involved all black women in a cast, I flew to New York," she says.

What she saw left a lasting impression. "I can't remember any piece in that time that was devoted to who I am as beautifully, as magnificently, as gloriously and as honestly," she says.

When the play debuted, says Lilly, "the women's liberation movement was really getting into its stride and black women, generally speaking, did not embrace the women's liberation movement because it didn't speak to them. ... When `colored girls' came out, that was our liberation movement in many ways because it spoke to us in particular. It was also universal, but it specifically spoke to us because it talked about our lives, the kinds of obstacles we were up against."

Nor did it shy away from the tough realities of urban black life. "It was like, at the time, the African-American woman's manifesto because it boldly and unapologetically spoke about some real visceral feelings that prior to, I guess, the late '60s and '70s, African-American women didn't want to make public," says Amini Johari-Courts, associate professor of speech and theater at Coppin State University and associate artistic director of Arena Players, where she directed "colored girls" in 1995.

Oz Scott, who directed the show's original New York productions, agrees that one of the play's most groundbreaking characteristics was Shange's candor, or "the voice that Ntozake gave to these feelings," as he puts it.

"She got shot down more from people saying, `Did you have to put it all out there? Did you have to expose everything?' " Scott says. "She was very honest -- honesty I felt came out of love."

"colored girls" was equally revolutionary in terms of structure. Shange coined the term "choreopoem" to describe her multidisciplinary style. "You have to go back to the Greeks for a choreopoem, meaning a mixture of movement, dance and poetry in service together to create a more dynamic theatrical moment," says production dramaturg James Magruder.

The choreopoem style allowed for highly expressive performances. "I think we took it to another level in performing it," says Scott. "Sometimes I felt it was more a musical theater form in a poetry-choreography manner."

New directions

Director Faison is treating his seven actresses as a unified ensemble or chorus, but at the same time, he has cast women who are more distinct -- ranging in age, for example, from the 20s to the 50s -- than is typical for this play.

In the original production, Shange, who was in her 20s, cast women around her age (including Baltimore native Trazana Beverley, who won a Tony Award for her portrayal of the Lady in Red).

"Now, 25 years later, the message is still the same, but the fact is that these women [at Center Stage] are very different. They look very different. They sound differently. Their voices are different. Their talents are different," says Lilly, "and it is really very moving to see this."

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