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

by Ntozake Shange
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535

While certainly a dramatic work, meant primarily to be performed, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf is not a play in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a series of twenty loosely related poems intended to be recited by seven actresses, with dance integrated into the performance. Ntozake Shange (pronounced “en-toh-ZAH-kee SHAHN-gay”), in fact, calls the work not a play but a “choreopoem.” The cast consists of seven unnamed actresses/dancers, designated simply as lady in brown, lady in yellow, lady in purple, lady in red, lady in green, lady in blue, and lady in orange. In a performance, the seven actresses trade off the leading role, change characters, interrupt one another, dance to accompany one another’s recitations, and create a unified whole out of the disparate material of the poems.

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Among the important themes in the work are issues related to growing up, especially growing up as an African American girl. One poem, “toussaint,” concerns an eight-year-old girl in St. Louis in 1955 who wins the library’s summer reading contest after discovering a biography of Haitian slave revolt leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. When it is discovered that she read books from the adult reading room, however, she is disqualified from the contest. She decides in her dejection to run away to Haiti and meet her hero Toussaint. After leaving home, she meets and befriends a little boy (whose name turns out to be Toussaint Jones) and finally realizes that she must stay in St. Louis and face the world into which she has been born. Another poem, “graduation nite,” is the triumphant story of a high school graduate in the 1960’s who retells, with breathless exuberance, how she danced and won over the crowds of teenagers at a graduation party. It is a coming-of-age celebration that ends with the young woman losing her virginity in the back of her boyfriend’s Buick and asserting, “we waz finally grown.”

A second important theme is that of male-female relationships and the problems to be found within them. Poems with titles including “no assistance,” “sorry,” and “no more love poems” suggest the pain and difficulty of negotiating gender roles and finding happiness with men, who often do not understand women’s emotional needs. These poems range from self-pitying to confident to angry. In them, the women call upon their inner resources and on one another to help deal with the emotional turmoil caused by romantic and sexual relationships. The cumulative effect of these works is to suggest the strength and resilience of the characters.

In other poems, however, Shange goes on to consider the most troubling sorts of personal relationships—those involving abuse. The poem “latent rapists” reveals the terror that many women feel as they begin to realize that their friends and coworkers may not be trustworthy and are statistically as likely to rape them as “the stranger/ we always thot waz comin.” In “a nite with beau willie brown,” a troubled Vietnam War veteran physically and emotionally abuses his girlfriend, Crystal, and their two children. In a shocking scene at the end, Beau Willie drops the children from a fifth-story window after Crystal has refused to marry him.

The Play

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1508

Written to “sing a black girl’s song . . . to sing her rhythms/ carin/ struggle/ hard times/ [to] . . . let her be born,” this play is a compilation of twenty poems performed by seven African American actresses. The poems are unified by a series of similar shared experiences of the charackers, who present a collage of experiences that articulate what it means to be a young...

(The entire section contains 8381 words.)

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