Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625
For colored girls . . . was not originally intended for a juvenile or young adult audience. Its themes include abortion, rape, and domestic violence, and several of the poems also include adult language. Nevertheless, the work has much to offer young adults, particularly in helping them to think through some of the important issues that African American women and girls confront in their daily lives. In addition to showing how these characters are separated from mainstream America, however, Shange also makes clear how the problems encountered by her characters are similar to those faced by persons from all backgrounds.
The choreopoem was not written all at once with its present structure and production strategy in mind. Rather, it grew out of a series of poetry readings and dance performances that Shange and another dancer, Paula Moss, gave in the San Francisco area in the early 1970’s. The performances originally took place in bars, coffee shops, and small college venues, and the poems and choreography developed and changed considerably over time. When local success led Shange to take the show to New York in 1975, she settled on which poems were to be included and in what order, enlisted the services of a director, and hired additional actress/dancers, bringing the total to seven. This rather unusual evolution of the work leads to some interpretive difficulties for readers of the work.
Perhaps the first difficulty to be overcome, one that would not pose a problem for a theatrical audience, is Shange’s idiosyncratic spelling, capitalization, and grammar. The author has explained that her refusal to follow the traditional rules of English—and her choice instead to write in a manner that approximates the dialect spoken by her African American characters—is the result of a conscious political decision. She does not simply ignore the rules, but she chooses with care where to follow them and where to break them in order to produce for her readers an experience most like the oral reading (in dialect) that was the form originally intended for the poems. In doing so, she hopes to make her readers aware that traditional English is not a “neutral” language but in fact reflects the history and dialect of the dominant classes. (It was this same awareness of the political nature of language that led the playwright to change her name officially from “Paulette Williams” to the African “Ntozake Shange.”)
A second problem posed for readers is a familiar one for dramatic works: how to read a piece not originally meant to be read, but rather intended to be seen and heard. While this is often a difficulty for readers of plays, the problem is intensified with Shange’s choreopoem because so many of the literary elements of traditional plays— plot, character, and obvious chronology, for example—are absent in the work. In addition, dance is a crucial part of the performance of for colored girls . . . , and there is no adequate way to convey this element on the page of a script. It is especially important for readers of this piece, therefore, to keep in mind the original intent of the author. They should try to imagine a performance of the work and the sort of power that would be added to the poetry with the inclusion of dance and other choreographed movement.
Despite these difficulties, however, for colored girls . . . repays the effort of reading it. It is a powerful work, demonstrating a wide emotional range and addressing a variety of issues and tastes. It shows characters navigating some of life’s difficult moments, learning from them, and coming out stronger than they were. Clearly, interest in such an approach is not limited to African Americans, and for this reason the work appeals to a broad audience.