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Review: Formidable ensemble gives new life to older work

Unnamed women in for colored girls speak monologues, sometimes solo, sometimes shared, drawn from their experiences being black and female in various cities across the United States at different times in the postwar period.

Cylla von Tiedemann

3 out of 4 stars

Title
for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf
Written by
Ntozake Shange
Directed by
Djanet Sears
Actors
d’bi.young anitafrika
Venue
Soulpepper
City
Toronto

Back in 2008, Soulpepper mounted a production of the first play by a black woman that was ever staged on Broadway: Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.

Now, the Toronto theatre company has moved on to the very different second one that made it to New York's commercial theatre district: Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.

In the spotlight of Broadway in 1976, for colored girls held up an entirely different vision of what African-American theatre could be than A Raisin in the Sun had in 1959.

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Hansberry had placed her black characters into the familiar European form of a domestic drama; Shange, influenced by Santeria, the spoken-word scene and African dance, wrote in a mixture of poetry, movement and music that she called a "choreopoem."

While Hansberry's play followed the rules of the dominant style of realism, Shange – who grew up as Paulette Williams in Trenton, N.J., and then moved to segregated St. Louis – didn't even use capital letters because she wanted to "attack, deform and maim the language I was taught to hate myself in."

If A Raisin in the Sun was the Martin Luther King Jr. of black drama on Broadway, then for colored girls was the belated appearance of its Malcolm X.

Ultimately, Shange has been much more influential on writers across the African diaspora – including on black Canadian dramatists – but her work is much less frequently produced.

Soulpepper's production makes it clear why – while parts of for colored girls endure, others connect with less immediacy.

The director/playwright Djanet Sears – who saw for colored girls on Broadway as an 18-year-old theatre student – is in charge of a formidable ensemble of seven black actresses here.

In the program, each character is identified by a colour rather than by character name – and, on stage, the actors wear a dress of the appropriate shade as well as high heels that they remove over the course of the liberating play.

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Designer Astrid Janson's set is real stunner – a curved black platform that lifts off from the lip of stage and then seems to disappear into an abyss. The cast mostly perform around it, but occasionally climb it as if considering the unfortunate end suggested in the title.

These unnamed women Shange invents and evokes speak monologues, sometimes solo, sometimes shared, drawn from their experiences being black and female in various cities across the United States at different times in the postwar period. Lady in Yellow (a sweet, restrained Karen Glave) talks about losing her virginity on high-school graduation night experience in the back of a black Buick, while Lady in Blue (SATE, an artist whose all-caps presence in a lower-case play is appreciated) talks about different styles of dancing while she weaves from English to Spanish and back again.

As Lady in Green, Akosua Amo-Adem demonstrates the fullest ability to sink her teeth into Shange's language and her poetic transcriptions of various African-American dialects. She gives a scorching rendition of a poem called somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff that comes late in the show and is some funny and furious feminism.

The first bit of writing of Shange's that really grabs, however, is called latent rapists. Shared by three of the actresses, it begins with the line "a friend is hard to press charges against" – and is a reminder of how little has changed in the way victims of sexual assault are ignored or judged.

Sears stages it with punch, too – the women all sitting in chairs that they rotate and slam to the ground in between sentences. (The director has collaborated with two choreographers: Jasmyn Fyffe and Vivine Scarlett.)

The form of for colored girls may have been original at the time, but it will not seem all seem alien to anyone who saw local playwright Trey Anthony's massive hit Da Kink in My Hair – which began life at the Toronto Fringe Festival and was eventually the first Canadian play produced commercially at the Princess of Wales Theatre in 2005.

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Anthony's show was also a series of monologues that explored different aspects of being black and female; it was less abstractly set or assertively poetic, however, with the speeches breaking out from a realistic frame – a Caribbean hair salon in Toronto.

A veteran of Da Kink creates the strongest, overall impression in for colored girls. d'bi young anitafrika, a dub poet known for her own performance work, too, has a hair-raising monologue about a woman whose life and those of her children are endangered by domestic violence. Many performers know how to build a feeling of anxiety, but few know how to maintain it at as extreme a level as this actress.

The monologue in question is one that Shange updated in 2010 to reference the Iraq War; at the time, she also added in a poem about a woman who discovers she is HIV-positive and confronts her male partner about it.

Plays are never finished, only abandoned, goes the saying – but the leap in perspective from 1970s to the 21st century is jarring. To my mind, it's also a misstep to update in such a limited fashion: It makes the distance of the original text and the lacuna in its black female perspectives more noticeable.

And, if we're at the theatre to reflect on the here and now, I had more opportunity to do so watching the Toronto performance poet Donna-Michelle St. Bernard's new work, Sound of the Beast, recently at Theatre Passe Muraille.

But, I can only speak for myself in finding this work less impactful; after all, Shange's is one of the few plays that makes clear the audience it's addressing is in the title – and, as a white man, I'm not in it.

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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