Play embraces notion of strength

Review: Strong performances underscore Ntozake Shange's enduring message in `for colored girls...'

January 13, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"somebody/anybody/sing a black girl's song/bring her out/to know herself," a character says in the first few minutes of Ntozake Shange's "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf."

When Shange's play debuted in 1975, its song was a rallying cry, an anthem, a voice singing for the unsung urban black woman. Twenty-five years later, in director/choreographer George Faison's production at Center Stage, the voice may no longer be as startlingly fresh, but it remains insistent and strong.

The play, a collection of poems compiled in a form Shange dubbed a "choreopoem," lends itself to a host of interpretive approaches. Faison puts his stamp on the work in several ways, some of which work better than others.

The most effective is hinted at as soon as you open the program. Shange named her seven characters the "Lady in Red," "Lady in Brown," "Lady in Purple," etc. At Center Stage the more mature term, "woman," is substituted for "lady," and one look at the cast proves this is not a mere matter of semantics.

Faison has cast a mix of seasoned and younger actresses, the elders dressed in the cooler tones of blue, brown and purple; their younger counterparts in the hotter shades of red, yellow and orange. And, instead of having individual actresses recite separate poems, the director makes fuller use of his ensemble, whose age range visually reinforces Shange's point about the strength and survival of African-American women.

In some cases, cast members portray different supporting characters in the poems (the beaus of J. Ieasha Prime's girlish Woman in Yellow in "graduation nite," for example). In others, a younger actress acts out the memories spoken by one of her seniors. There are also times, however, particularly at the beginning, when the interaction between the characters is so busy, it detracts from the flow of the work.

The most effective directorial touch comes in the searing penultimate poem, "a nite with beau willie brown," spoken by Janet Huber's tough Woman in Red. Standing on the fire escape-like balcony of designer Walt Spangler's spare, two-level set, Huber's character delivers the bulk of this tragic tale concerning the disturbed Vietnam vet who fathered her children. In his unusual staging, Faison seats the other six cast members on bentwood chairs below the balcony, where they recite occasional sections of the poem as if sharing fragments of devastating gossip -- an approach that suggests the impact Beau Willie's crime has on an entire community.

The production uses few props; Faison's showiest device is an immense purple shawl, which the actresses put to a multiplicity of uses. In one scene it's a jump rope in a remembered girlhood game, in another it becomes the smocks worn by customers at a beauty parlor. The trouble is, after a while, the shawl becomes a distraction as you find yourself wondering how it will be used next.

Similarly, though the production is enhanced by the presence of musicians Okyerma Asante and Rene McLean, their music at times overpowers the words, despite the use of body mikes.

For the most part, however, the performances are distinctive and noteworthy. Stand-outs include Novella Nelson, as the Woman in Brown, reliving the childhood joy of discovering a black hero, 18th-century Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture, during a trip to the library; and Carol-Jean Lewis as the Woman in Green, exclaiming with both indignation and humor, "somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff."

Ann Hould-Ward's stretch jersey costumes, all of which incorporate slacks, meet with mixed results. Although the outfits worn by the senior cast members have sophisticated lines, the windowpane-design cut-out midriffs for the Woman in Red and the Woman in Orange are unflattering.

One last word about the multipurpose purple shawl. By the end of the production, the performers have formed a bond that is closer and warmer than any shawl, no matter how large. Like the shawl, not all of Faison's attempts are equally successful, but there's no question that the final embrace of the seven women in his cast extends out into the audience.

`for colored girls...'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, and 1 p.m. Jan. 26. Through Feb. 13

Tickets: $10-$40

Call: 410-332-0033

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