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?"
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 Debate filled forty-eight pages of the May-June 1979 edition of the journal. It was followed by a spate of assertions in Black American Literature Forum, Black Scholar, and elsewhere that Shange demonstrated compassion and integrity in her ruthlessly honest portrayal of a few black males in for colored girls ..., that her intent was not to malign black males but to paint reality as it was for African Americans of both genders.
As the black sexism debate lost its fury, later critics found new ways to discuss the choreopoem. One way looks at the ideology expressed in it. Sandra Richards in 1983 explored the conflict experienced by characters who "ricochet from a devastating social reality wherein they are totally vulnerable to an ecstatic spirituality wherein they are identical with an eternal, natural power." Another focuses on the performance aspect of the choreopoem; John Timpane in 1989 argued that the improvisational character and collage structure of the performance and even the creative orthography of the script work to undermine audience expectations for closure and tidy structure. This resistant dramatic structure thus serves to create new possibilities for the identity of those it celebrates; according to Timpane, "it is used to challenge preconceived notions, show unexpected connections, and call forth the richness and dynamism of existence." Tejumolo Olaniyan in 1995 focused upon the play's use of language. Quoting Shange as asserting "After all I didn't mean whatever you can ignore. I mean what you have to struggle with," Olaniyan aligned the playwright with French linguistic philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, who says that language joins in the oppression of a victim by making it impossible to express the crime. Shange has asserted that her predicament has led her to "attack deform n maim the language that i was taught to hate myself in." Olaniyan explored the way in which Shange's improvisational use of language succeeds in molding a language that can both express the crime and reconstitute the victim.
Shange and numerous critics have noted that the era for which she constructed for colored girls ... was unique in history, short-lived, and that the play no longer fits the social reality of some black women, although many still find themselves trapped in similar situations. However, the timeless power of the piece continues to command audience attention through its improvisational dance and its fusion of unique language, structure, and meaning.