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

by Ntozake Shange

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Departure From Conventional Drama

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Shange has asserted that the form of the conventional play is too restrictive; in her introductory essay to three pieces, which was quoted in Ntozake Shange: A Critical Study of the Plays, she called it "a truly european framework for european psychology" which cannot serve as a medium in which to express black culture, psychology, and sensibility. In that same essay, she explained that because she views American theater as "overwhelmingly shallow... stilted, and imitative," she insists upon calling herself a "poet or writer" rather than a playwright. Indeed, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf has more in common with poetry, music, and dance than with traditional theater scripts, but it is certainly good theater—good dramatic theater—as well. In a departure from conventional theater, she jettisons characters and plot, instead presenting transient performer/characters who portray an apartment house of stories. Within each apartment, each episodic poem, lives a black girl, trying to escape the confines of an oppressive society. Yet even though Shange has done away with plot, there is a progression within the poems that explores the "metaphysical dilemma" of "bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored." The play ends with a sense of closure as though the dilemma has been accepted or understood and fully expressed, and, if not resolved, on the way to a solution. Typical of Shange's style, she coins a new term for her dramatic work— "choreopoem," a choreographed poem. Her poems are not just accompanied by music and dance, but "danced poems" in which dance, movements, and gestures express as much meaning as do the words of the poem.

Movement and innovation are key themes in for colored girls... and are important concepts in all of Shange's work. She sees herself as creating a new place where her "voices" (her characters as well as her thoughts), "can be heard, where they can move around, they can dance or they can hear music that they want to hear," as she explained in an interview with Angela Davis in 1989. In removing the structure of the conventional play and focusing on her invented medium of choreopoem, which she alone does best, Shange withdraws her work from the range of sniping (white, male) critics. She finds this an exhilarating place to be and has described it as being "at war with and making love to the world at the same time," as quoted in Ntozake Shange: A Critical Study of the Plays.

Dance carries differing meanings within for colored girls.... Sometimes transcendent moments of joy in movement and dance are halted by harsh reality. The poem "latent rapists" interrupts celebratory dancing at the end of "i'm a poet who'' with a sudden change of light that causes the ladies "to react as if they had been struck in the face." They stop dancing and withdraw into themselves. This arrest of movement announces the topic of date rape, a situation in which trust is betrayed by overpowering domination and violence. Domination, whether by physical force such as in rape or through the social structures of living in a white-dominated world, imposes a stultifying order over these women.

Dancing and movement also makes the women vulnerable. To dance is to participate in life to the fullest degree and yet a young girl may pay a terrible price for a night of celebrating joy in dance and sexual awakening, as described in "abortion cycle #1." The young girl who danced with complete abandonment suddenly finds herself on a hospital gurney, alone and strapped down for an emotionally and...

(This entire section contains 1999 words.)

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physically torturous procedure. There is no escaping, however, the urge to dance and be completely alive. In "no more love poem #3" the lady in purple realizes that she doesn't want to "dance wit ghosts," that the only way to live is to interact with men and pay the consequences. The lady in yellow regrets her "dependency on other livin beins for love" because she knows that her love will only be "thrown back on [her] face." Nevertheless, the ladies continue to long for male relationships. That the men in this play—with the possible exception of Toussaint Jones—never live up to women's expectations of them has been interpreted by some as an invective against black males. Shange sees this perspective as limited and limiting because it once again takes the focus off of women and places it on men.

In an earlier poem, Sechita, a tawdry carnival dancer, tries to evade the vulnerability of dancing by adopting a mask. She "made her face immobile/ she made her face like nefertiti" as a defense against the whoops of the drunken men of the carnival audience. Then Sechita uses the very dance meant to display her like a piece of merchandise to turn the tables on her audience so that rather than being the object of their lewd gazes, she becomes an Egyptian goddess performing a rite, "the conjurin of men," holding them in thrall. Through her performance she improvises a place of honor where none existed before, a commendable effort.

However, even the triumph of Sechita, kicking out her leg in vicious command, is a kind of failure because ultimately, she is alone. She is like the "passion flower" who, with a different kind of mask, lures men to her bed in order to reject them before dawn, succeeding at punishing them for having the arrogance to want her but still crying herself to sleep after recording her exploits in her diary. Thus, the immobility of the mask is itself stultifying and serves only to remind a young black woman that she cannot "survive on intimacy & tomorrow'' if she has no one with whom to share it. It does no good to adopt a false stance because the stance itself prevents intimacy. Even though intimacy may bring pain, it is better to risk being vulnerable, to be "real/no longer symmetrical & impervious to pain" and possibly find love and fulfillment.

Unfortunately, some young black women are victimized by the kind of intimacy that socially wounded black men offer. In "a nite with beau willie brown," Crystal holds too tightly to her children, and her act of immobility destroys them and her. She too finds it impossible to engage in a mutually responsive and responsible dance with a black man. Throughout the poem, movement vies with stasis and neither Crystal nor Willie is capable of reading the signs around them or from each other. If they could, perhaps they might move beyond their psychologically-impaired marriage. Willie, a Vietnam War veteran, keeps getting placed into remedial reading classes and cannot secure a good job. He is depicted as "an ol frozen bundle of chicken'' sweating in his bed. When Crystal gets pregnant a second time, he beats her. She combats his violent behavior by getting a court order denying him access to his children. When he comes to visit her, apparently wanting to prove himself a good husband and father at last, Crystal is too mired up in the pain of their past to move toward him. She holds her children tight to her, so that getting possession of them becomes his sole objective. They fight each other with forms of entrapment, the weapon that society has used upon them. The refrain "there waz no air" weaves through the poem, suggesting a universal suffocation. In response to Willie's demand for public acceptance of him, Crystal can only whisper in his oppressive presence. Her voice fails her because, metaphorically speaking, she has no "voice" in her relationship or in her world. Because her lackluster response fails to satisfy Willie, he drops the children out of the fifth-story window. If Crystal had been allowed to have a voice, she might have stopped Willie; if she been able to improvise, she might have risen above their past, allowing him to respond in kind. But there "waz no air."

Movement is a means to escape stasis or imprisonment. According to critic Olaniyan: "In the hands of the dominated but rebellious poet, the slippery, unfixable forms, music and dance, become instruments for breaking down and reaching beyond the claustrophobic dominated space." Harlem is a closing tunnel, a six-block universe, where a girl has to turn up the music loud until "there is no me but dance." The dancer escapes the fetters of an uncivil society, albeit only briefly. Transcendence is merely a form of escapism, a temporary respite during which one manages to ignore reality for a time. But movement can also serve as a means of creating and maintaining a strong sense of self. Once she overcame the misperception that the black female body is not ideal, Shange discovered that dance can meld body and soul into a more harmonious unit. As Shange explains in the preface to for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf: "With the acceptance of the ethnicity of my thighs & backside, came a clearer understanding of my voice as a woman & as a poet. The freedom to move in space, to demand of my own sweat a perfection that could continually be approached, though never known, was poem to me, my body & mind ellipsing, probably for the first time in my life." The improvisational movement and dance of for colored girls... transcends limiting reality and leads to the unlimited realm of creativity and self-actualization.

The lasting qualities of Shange' s work lie in the production of a new vision of self— black female self. Improvisational performance and dance participate in this production, as do gesture and language. For in language, too, Shange practices improvisation. She is quoted in Ntozake Shange: A Critical Study of the Plays as asserting: "I like the idea that letters dance, not just that words dance, of course, the words also dance." To make words and letters dance, Shange eliminates capitalization and punctuation and spells phonetically. More than dialect, her language is new one, a fusion of poetry and vernacular. The lady in green refers to it as her "quik language," Quiklanguage is witty, creative, incisive—oral poetry invented on the spot and for the moment only, in phrases like "push your leg to the moon with me." This new language refuses to be bound by conventional orthography. Even when Shange needs punctuation to indicate a pause, she invents her own, inserting virgules (/), normally reserved for marking off poetic feet, as short stops. In her introductory essay to three pieces, Shange explained her unconventional use of language: "i haveta fix my tools to/my needs," she said "I have to take it apart to the bone/so that the malignancies/ fall/away leaving us space to literally create our own image." The convergence of quik language with "quik feet" and music "like smack" brings into being the "felt architecture'' that Shange likes to create. In this emotional environment, a colored girl can experience what Flannery O'Connor termed "moments of being," flashes of self-actualization in a world that makes such moments precious indeed. Shange explains her emphasis on improvisation in her manifesto entitled "takin a solo/a poetic possibility/a poetic imperative." Weaving her own poetic theory among snippets of poems by Ishmael Reed, Leroi Jones, Victor Hernandez Cruz, and others, she proclaims, "i am giving you a moment/like something that isnt coming back." For the audience, trying to comprehend the spectacle, her moments may prove puzzling. Shange clearly articulated her motive in an interview with Claudia Tate: "I can't let you get away with thinking you know what I mean. I didn't mean whatever you can ignore. I mean what you have to struggle with." Struggling with what she means is a fruitful exercise in mental improvisation. Just as inserting the color brown into the rainbow presents a potential new definition of "colored girls," Shange's work also succeeds in redefining the rest of the world as well.

Source: Carole L Hamilton, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997.

Initiation Into Womanhood

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Joseph Papp has developed a system for moving talented new playwrights, directors, and actors from workshop beginnings through Off-Broadway productions to Broadway. For Colored Girls has successfully followed the Papp program: from its beginnings as a workshop production at the Henry Street Settlement Playhouse, to an Off-Broadway production at the Public, and on to the Booth.

For Colored Girls has a wider appeal than its title suggests; it is not for black women only, although the experiences culled and given life on the Booth stage are directly related to the lives of many black women. Ming Cho Lee's huge red paper peony up center, placed in front of the deep purple backdrop, is the only scenic element; it is all that is needed, standing as it does for the unified heart, brain, gut, womb, and center of being not only of the "colored girls" in the title but of all women. The purity, incisiveness, and truth of the writing reaches into the red flower at the center of all women; universal truths, drawn in detail, spill out in well-controlled poem-monologues from the actresses on stage directly into the emotional receivers in the guts of the audience. It is the directness of the emotional communication that electrifies the audience.

By means of his arrangement of Ntozake Shange's autobiographical poetry pieces, each an investigation into a particular aspect of private black womanhood, the director, Oz Scott, has created a form resonant of a rite of passage. The passage is from girlhood and innocence, through adolescence and the beginnings of self-discovery, into adult suffering through love, and finally to self-acceptance. The action of the piece—finding and accepting oneself—has been created by structuring the poems into a pattern as sensitive as flowers arranged by an Ikebana artist.

While not a traditional play, For Colored Girls is essentially theatrical, rooted in rite, ceremony, and mythology. The characters experience deep conflicts, and a resolution is achieved. In structure the work is musical, resembling jazz riffs, once improvisationally emerging directly from street experience, now structured like Ellington's music into notations that record and codify joyfulness, melancholy, or a sense of tragic despair. With choreography by Paula Moss (also one of the actresses), the poems insist on being danced as well as acted.

Judy Dearing's costumes confirm the importance of movement in the piece; they are really dance costumes that free the actresses' bodies for any movement. The most superb moments are in the poem "Sechita" evoking African goddesses of the distant past through the recreation of a cabaret dancer in New Orleans. The poem is expertly spoken by Rise Collins and danced by Paula Moss.

There are elements of comedy, tragedy, and biting satire in the production. The most vividly tragic piece, "Nite with Beau Willie Brown," produces near-hysterical laughter culminating in tears. A crazed black war veteran beats his abused lover with a highchair in which their baby still sits, an unfamiliar, savage image, offbeat and almost surreal, as are many of the images in this piece.

Ntozake Shange has served up slices of her world. For some people this reality is intolerable, requiring the defense of laughter. Even for Shange, reality is too much sometimes In "I Used to Live in the World (But then I Moved to Harlem)," the poet lashes out with bitterness at the shrunken existence in such a constricted universe.

Rites of initiation traditionally culminate in a vision of the godhead. For Colored Girls, structured as an initiation rite into full adult womanhood— passing through the stages of life in concretely remembered specific experiences—culminates in the joyous affirmation of the beauty and integrity of the black woman's self. It is a rousing yet delicate, strongly felt spiritual dedicated to the earthy reality of the great goddess/mother/source-of-all-life, sincerely perceived by Shange to be a woman, probably a black woman, (pp. 262-63).

Source: Lynn F. Miller, in a review of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 29, No, 2, May, 1977, pp. 262-63.

Positive Review

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I hope a way may be devised to arrange a national tour to a presentation I recently saw at the Henry Street Settlement's New Federal Theatre (on Grand Street) in cooperation with Joseph Papp's Public Theatre. It was for me a signal event.

It is called For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.... Its author, St. Louis-born Ntozake Shange, is a young woman who appeared as one of its performers and is now an artist-in-residence of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. She calls her piece a "choreopoem"—poems in verse and prose to be voiced singly, in pairs or in unison by four actresses and three women dancers, with occasional accompanying music. The women hail from various parts of the country.

Because the text is composed of a series of poems of decided literary worth, I first thought that the performance would have greater impact if they were recited so that no word was lost through movement. But as the evening went on (and on examining the script) I realized that my first impression was mistaken. The faces and bodies as well as the voices of the actresses give the occasion its special force. Much credit for the success of the event is also due to its director, Oz Scott, who saw the "play" in the material.

In a number of respects this work is unique. Its stress is on the experience of black women—their passionate outcry, as women, within the black community. There is no bad-mouthing the whites: feelings on that score are summed up in the humorously scornful lines addressed to a black man which begin: "ever since I realized there was someone callt a colored girl, a evil woman, a bitch or a nag, I been tryin' not to be that and leave bitterness in somebody elses cup.... I finally bein real no longer symmetrical and inervious to pain ... so why don't we be white then and make everythin' dry and abstract wid no rhythm and no reelin' for sheer sensual pleasure...." The woman who utters these words, like all the others, speaks not so much in apology or explanation of her black condition but in essential human protest against her black lover whose connection with her is the ordinary (white or black) callousness toward women. Thus she asserts "I've lost it/touch with reality/I know who's doin' it I should be unsure, if I'm still alive I survive on intimacy and to-morrow.... But bein' alive and bein' a woman and bein' colored is a metaphysical dilemma.''

This gives only a pitifully partial notion of the pain and power, as well as the acrid wit—"so redundant in the modern world''—which much of the writing communicates. The thematic emphasis is constantly directed at the stupid crudity and downright brutality of their own men, which, whatever the causes, wound and very nearly destroy their women. These women have been driven to the very limits of their endurance (or "rainbow") and are desperately tired of hearing their men snivel that they're "sorry." Part of the joy in the performance lay in the ecstatic response of the women in the audience!

There is no black (or white) sentimentality here, no glamorizing of Harlem or any other ghetto existence; there is the eloquence of moral and sensory awareness couched in language powerful in common speech and a vocabulary both precise and soulfully felt.

Source: Harold Clurman, in a review of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, in the Nation, Vol 222, no. 17, May 1, 1976, pp 541-42.


Critical Overview