for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf

by Ntozake Shange
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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1000

Taking for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf to New York City in 1976 entailed polishing the act for a more demanding, theater-sophisticated audience than the appreciative and supportive mostly female audiences in the cafes and women's bars of San Francisco. Shange, just twenty-seven at the time, relied on theater director Oz Scott to transform the twenty separate poems into a unified and cohesive play, sharpening the theatrical elements along the way. The predominantly black audiences of the Joseph Papp Anspacher Theater production reacted with obvious pride and exhilaration. Alan Rich's review for New York magazine treated the play as an anomaly, "respectable plays by blacks being a comparatively new phenomenon." Clive Barnes, who in 1982 would include Shange's choreopoem in the 8th edition of Best American Plays, expressed appreciation in his 1976 New York Times review for the fact that, rather than make him "feel guilty at being white and male" the play made him "proud ... with the joyous discovery that a white man can have black sisters.'' But not all of the reviews were so positive. Theater critic John Simon did not share the sense of euphoria, snidely asking in his New Leader review: "Is this poetry? Drama? Or simply tripe? Would it have been staged if written by a white?"

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Literary critic Neal Lester, writing in 1995, suggested that Simon's inability to appreciate Shange's innovative work stemmed from a need for a new critical language that would assess the choreopoem on "its own cultural and aesthetic terms." The concept of a play in which the plot proceeds through music and dance was not without precedent; West Side Story (1951) was not so much a musical, a drama with music added, but a ballet or opera with dialogue added. Broadway had just experienced a transformation of theatrical conventions in the form of long-running hits, Hair (1967), Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar (both 1971), and A Chorus Line (1975), that took for granted the integration of music and action. However, even in these landmark works, poetry, music, and improvisational dance had never before been fused together with such force and integrity as Shange accomplished, and the new critical language required to discuss the "choreopoem" on its own terms would be a while longer in coming.

Reviews of the Broadway debut of for colored girls ... were mixed. Theater critic Jessica Harris applauded the play for being the first popular success by a female black playwright who, rather than proffer the expected stereotypes, portrayed the black female condition truthfully. But negative reactions came from African American men, who focused on the negative portrayal of black males. Their voices were included in a series of essays in Black Scholar later to be known collectively as the Black Sexism Debate. From an outsider's perspective it looks like a turf battle over which group was more oppressed. Robert Staples, quoted in an African American Review article by Lester, saw in the play "a collective appetite for black male blood'' and complained that the characters portray circumstances far from his own personal experience. Furthermore, Staples interpreted the "laying on of hands'' conclusion of the play as a dangerous move toward narcissism. He chided Shange for failing to explain how black men suffer in self-respect at the hands of black women. According to Lester, also author of Ntozake Shange. A Critical Study of the Plays , "Staples's comments are typical of the partriarchy's reversing the roles of victim and perpetrator." Shange herself replied to Staples and other contributors in the form of two poems, "is not so gd to be born a girl" and "otherwise I would think it odd to have rape prevention month." In all, the Black Sexism...

(The entire section contains 1000 words.)

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