Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through April 14
By ANNE SPISELMAN
When Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” opened at New York’s Booth Theater in 1976, it became only the second play by an African American woman (after Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun”) to reach Broadway. Forty-three years later, the “choreopoem” remains as timely as ever, especially in Court Theatre’s searing, stunning production.
True, the format—a combination of storytelling, poetry, music, and dance—isn’t as groundbreaking as it was originally, and some of the references are to now-obscure artists and musicians, but the subject matter still is surprisingly relevant, often distressingly so. While a few of the 20 interconnected stories and poems are about love, empowerment, and sisterhood, the majority explore topics like rape, abandonment, abortion, domestic violence, and the other struggles and losses plaguing black women. More often than not, the culprits are black men, something for which Shange, who died last year, was criticized.
One thing that has always struck me about the piece is how the women basically speak with one voice—Shange’s–even though they portray a rainbow of characters. Costumed in vivid dresses by Samantha C. Jones, they’re identified only by color: Lady in Yellow (Melanie Brezill), Lady in Purple (Leah Casey, also the choreographer), Lady in Blue (Melissa DuPrey), Lady in Green (Angelica Katie), Lady in Brown (Matrisse D. McClain), Lady in Orange (Alexis J. Roston), and Lady in Red (AnJi White).
Seret Scott, who replaced Shange as the Lady in Orange in the Broadway production, directs beautifully, and Court’s show owes its freshness and power to her as well as to the outstanding ensemble. One of her inspirations has been to add an eighth woman, Lyric (her skirt contains a rainbow of colors), and talented musician and composer Melody Angel helps bring the 90-minute evening to life with her singing, drumming, and guitar playing.
Some of the women narrate their own tales, often in the third person, and some are recounted by others. Scott paces them all well, incorporating music that ranges from nursery rhymes to jazz riffs and
dancing that includes group celebrations and balletic solos.
She also has an eye for memorable visuals. The Lady in Red’s portrayal of a glittering prostitute who takes a different man home every night, then shows him her real self in the morning, brusquely asks him to leave, and writes about her exploits in her diary ends with a striking image of vulnerability I won’t soon forget. White is riveting in this role and also as the abused, terrified Crystal in the horrifying story of Beau Willie Brown, a damaged Vietnam Vet who goes berserk and threatens their two children when she won’t marry him.
On the lighter side, though not devoid of anger, are the Lady in Red’s explanation of why and how she’s breaking up with a man she’s loved for “eight months, two weeks, and a day,” and the Lady in Blue’s monologue about how she used to live in the world but now only lives in Harlem, and her universe is six blocks. The Lady in Green unleashes her irritation on the somebody who took all her “stuff,” and she doesn’t mean physical possessions.
The Lady in Brown describes falling in love with Toussaint L’Ouverture after finding him in a book in the library, becoming obsessed with him even though he was dead, then meeting and going off with a real Toussaint Jones, though what could be charming is rather creepy, since she’s only eight years old at the time. A potentially nasty account of three friends who fall in love with the same man ends with them commiserating with each other rather than fighting.
One of the most amusing group numbers is the women’s recitation of all the kinds of apologies they’ve gotten from men. Although hurt outweighs humor overall, Scott’s direction makes the most of the latter when possible.
“For Colored Girls…” could easily be performed on a bare stage, but Courtney O’Neill’s rough-walled curving set with multiple archways and steps serves it well. It looks like the ruins of an ancient gathering place, but with the addition of Paul Toben’s lighting and Andre Pluess’ rumbling sound design simulating a passing train, it becomes a subway station. The effect is simultaneously timeless and very specific, just like Shange’s work itself.