When one goes to “see” the newest Portland Center Stage production “for Colored Girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf,” one does not merely “see” it, but experiences it. This is not simply theater for theatergoers, but a dramatic experience that attempts to connect with all of your senses and sensibilities, and, as they say, “give it to ya,” straight up.
One should not even consider this a “play,” but rather a “choreo-poem,” as the author of the work, Ntozake Shange, has termed it. When first performed on Broadway in 1976, the work was the subject of much controversy for its dramatic portrayals of African American women (and men) and because the structure (or lack thereof) was and still is so different from traditional theatrical narratives.
“For Colored Girls” draws from a variety of sources, including African griot-style storytelling techniques, Greek choral reflections and jazz group/solo dynamics. The result is not a story with linear plot and dialogue, but an expression of human realities, centered around the African American female experience.
The performance can be seen as a series of fragmented realities, reconstructed through the voices and bodies of seven women, expressed through song, dance and soul, each telling their stories of pain, despair, joy, tenderness, alienation and perhaps most critically, their identity as women of color. While at times the content and message of these tales feel decidedly anti-black male, director Andrea Frye sees it as a more universal theme for anyone who has suffered in life, and that the intense nature of the characters’ interactions with men is the result of “the foremost task of the artist to show us the world as she sees it without censorship or homogeneity of political correctness.”
Indeed, the emotions emitted from these seven women, who go by no names except the color of their dresses, is without the leveling inhibitions of “whiteness,” as one woman described in her contribution to the chorus-poem. But “whiteness” is merely a frame of mind, a cultural reference, and has nothing to do with skin color. The seven women represented here wear similar dresses to express the commonality of their experience, their inner links of humanity, with each dress differing only in color, but if only to say that the colors themselves don’t matter.
The talented cast of Olivia D. Lawson (Purple), Crystal Fox (Red), Karan Kendrick (Green), Quigley Provost-Landrum (Orange), Brenda Porter (Brown), Nancy Rodriguez (Yellow) and Ithica Tell (Blue) are themselves from diverse backgrounds. They represent and add a much needed “color” to the rather “white” theater that is dominant here and elsewhere. The mood and liveliness that is the Diasporic culture rooted in African traditions is evident in the energy and easiness with which the performers carry themselves and the music, which ranges from Motown to classic downtown jazz, transforming Portland into a truly cosmopolitan center, at least for awhile. Though the sequences referred to by these abstract creations are not limited by any geography, fuzzy lights on New York City streets slice through one’s mind throughout the performance, and that makes sense when one considers that this work began its life in SoHo lofts and Lower East Side bars.
The title “for Colored Girls” could be taken out of its original context, in that this is about human trials and tribulations, as related by colored girls, but not merely limited to them. This does not in any way mean that we should discount the credibility of these expressions, which do represent colored girls in many ways, and gives us a reason to survive, and beyond that, to thrive. One only hopes that the audience is able to look beyond “color,” just as these women have, and get to the end of the rainbow.