Over The Rainbow

January 28, 2000|By ARTHUR HIRSCH | ARTHUR HIRSCH,SUN STAFF

Female or male, black or white or colors in between. Doesn't much matter.

If you've lived at all, when the Woman in Green testifies in "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf" you snap to attention. How could you not when she's up there with that face caught between astonishment and enlightenment and that bark of a voice telling what you know is true in a way that perhaps you haven't quite heard before.

She's not the lead character, nor does she tell the most sensational tale in the show at Center Stage. But Carol-Jean Lewis as the Woman in Green has been taking over the house night after night, making the place her pulpit, raising audible "amens" from the crowd with her interpretation of "somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff," an anthem for anyone who ever loved in vain. It's the funniest and one of the most potent of 20 poems in Ntozake Shange's 90-minute "choreopoem."

It's a standout moment in a night of strong moments in a show that, when it first appeared, shocked the theater crowd. It wasn't quite a play and Shange never called it one. It had bare threads of story here and there, but no conventional dialogue. It had seven young black women identified with colors, not names, their voices energized with anger and resentment as they tell about their struggle for selfhood.

It began as a bar act in New York and San Francisco until Joseph Papp heard about it and brought it to his Public Theater in New York in the summer of 1976. Months later it opened on Broadway.

Twenty-four years later, "alla my stuff" might sound the freshest notes of all.

"It's closer to us being here in the 21st century, right now. I think it's her most immediate poem," says George Faison, who directed the Center Stage production, which runs through Feb. 13. "And I think that it's us at our hippest, at our coolest. That's probably her most standout poem I think we find Ntozake at her most humorous at that particular point, but at her most honest as well," Faison says.

The message is profound without being ponderous, thanks to the humor in the writing and Lewis' interpretation. "Tough things are a little easier to take with a little sugar," says Faison.

It's the humor, the detachment and self-awareness that give "alla my stuff" an especially contemporary sound. Out of a sea of American black women's troubles -- rejection, rape, abortion, humiliation -- emerges the Woman in Green, standing stage front, apparently about to deliver a stand-up comedy routine.

The Woman in Green, a big woman with her hair piled atop her head, speaks in this growly voice, registering shades of outrage, resentment and amused detachment at the fact that she nearly lost herself in thrall to an indifferent man.

As it appears in the published script, the poem starts this way: "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 & forgettin while stealin

"this is mine/this aint yr stuff ..."

The poem builds, the rhythm a cross between stand-up and rap. The refrain, "somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff," grows funnier and more penetrating each time. There's that key word: almost. The Woman in Green has stood at the brink of desolation and returned whole to stand now before you to say: can you believe what he, what I can you believe this?

Because the poem precedes the violent climax of the show, Faison says they wanted to work it for all the humor they could, drawing on Lewis' years of experience in musical comedy.

"It was like us trying to find a way of taking you up really high, and this poem can, because of the humor," says Faison. "We were trying to send it up as much as we could, without destroying the author's intent, because of the weightiness, the heaviness" of the poem after it.

A turning point

If the entire show moves, as critic Neal A. Lester has written, from a woman's "innocence to experience, from youth to adulthood from ignorance of self to self-knowledge," the "alla my stuff" poem marks a turning point. Here the Woman in Green takes back the identity she temporarily lost and acknowledges her part in letting it happen.

"somebody almost run off wit alla my stuff/& I waz standin there/lookin at myself/the whole time. "

As Carol-Jean Lewis sees it, much of the power of this poem comes from the universal emotion it conveys. Shange has said that she wrote these poems for young black women, but the show -- and "alla my stuff" most of all -- transcends demographic categories.

"Because all of us have had to fight for our place in the world and been in conflict with those people that have agendas," says Lewis. "Family, friends, lovers, children. Everybody usually has an agenda. And you have to claim your own stuff. Some people never do. Some people, they use the term `settle.' And that's why I think it has so much meaning."

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