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

Ntozake Shange

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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.

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...

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The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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 black woman in the modern world. The play addresses the physical and emotional violence that is committed against women of color as well as addressing all women’s potential to triumph over the pain of rejection, brutalization, and devaluation. The essence of the play, Shange has noted, is contained within its title. The rainbow, which follows a storm, suggests the opportunity “to start all over again with the power and the beauty of ourselves.” The play, which Shange refers to as a “choreopoem,” is an exploration of people’s lives and offers hope to women who have endured the harshness of the storm.

The play begins with a plea to echo the song of the black girl’s possibilities. The subsequent panorama of African American characters and their behavior, customs, and language includes poems about an eight-year-old girl in St. Louis, Missouri, who falls in love with the idea of Toussaint L’Ouverture, a prostitute who “wanted to be a . . . wound to every man,” a lonely black woman imprisoned in the six-block universe of Harlem, and a high-school girl who deliberates on the question of surrendering her virginity “in a deep black buick/ smellin of thunderbird & ladies in heat.” Other sketches include an ashamed woman’s abortion, three friends who share the affections of one man, and a woman who almost loses her stuff—her body, her soul, and her spirit—to a worthless man. The “sorry” poems depict rambunctious street humor, as women mock the men who exit from their lives while the men provide myriad weak alibis for their inexcusable treatment of women.

Some noteworthy poems underscore the richness of the play. These include “now i love somebody more than” and “i’m a poet who,” which address the urgency of music and dance in the lives of black women as means to ventilate their repressed anxieties. Equally remarkable is the poem “latent rapists.” This work is about date rape and voices the concerns of women who are afraid to press charges against rapists who have been friends and who are men that hold prominent positions. Another poem deserving recognition is “a laying on of hands,” which centers on self-love, self-empowerment, and sisterhood. “a nite with beau willie brown,” perhaps the most powerful sketch, commands attention for its portrayal of a maniacal woman-beater who drops his son and daughter out of a fifth-floor window because the mother of his children, whom he has battered, refuses to marry him.

The characters in this play are seven nameless African American women dressed in dance costumes with long skirts that are each a different color but are otherwise identical. The skirts are the colors of the rainbow, plus brown. Each character is identified by the color of her dress: lady in brown, lady in yellow, lady in purple, lady in red, lady in green, lady in blue, lady in orange. The women take turns presenting poems that illustrate what it means to be young, black, and female—and thus triply oppressed—in a white patriarchal society that forces black women to fend for themselves. Mistreated and abused, these characters suffer tragedies that include rape, abortion, unrequited love, battery, and the murder of their children. They find strength within their individual and collective selves to recover after being assaulted...

(The entire section is 1508 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Camden. City in lower east-central New Jersey, about an hour’s drive south of Mount Holly; both towns are in southern Mercer County. Named in the second poem of the series, this area is home to working-class people, the majority of whom might attend trade and technical schools.

*Southern Boulevard

*Southern Boulevard. Thoroughfare in New York City’s south Bronx area that formerly had a large Hispanic population but still has several Hispanic dance studios. Real places, such as this, encourage audiences to believe the experiences expressed in the poems.

*Lower East Side

*Lower East Side. Neighborhood in New York City’s Manhattan that has historically been home to streams of immigrants who have found cheap housing in the neighborhood’s tenement buildings. The neighborhoods have traditionally been ethnically mixed, as are other neighborhoods mentioned in the poems in South Central Los Angeles and Upper Manhattan’s Harlem. By mentioning these well-known neighborhoods, the playwright shows that despite the minimal and abstract stage setting, the women discussed in the poems are true to life.

*Port au Prince

*Port au Prince. Capital city of Haiti, the black-ruled Caribbean island nation. It, like West Africa’s Accra and North Africa’s Tunis, is depicted in the poems as a stop along the historical routes that carried slaves from Africa to the New World. These places remind audiences of the historical events relevant to the lives of the characters.

The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

For colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf is termed a choreopoem by its author, Ntozake Shange; the drama tells, in a series of twenty poems, stories of joy, pain, suffering, abuse, strength, and resilience of Afro-American women. The characters are seven women (or “ladies,” as they are called in the play), dressed in the colors of the rainbow plus brown. The choreopoem consists of the individual poems spoken by each of the women; each is intermittently joined by the other characters for a chorus effect.

The poems may be grouped into five categories, based on theme and subject. The first three poems explore the subjects of youth and love. At the beginning of the drama, the stage is in darkness, harsh music plays, and dim lights appear. The seven ladies run onstage from the exits and freeze in postures of distress. The spotlight picks up the lady in brown, who is the first to speak. She walks over to the lady in red and calls to her, but there is no response; then the lady in brown begins the first poem, “dark phases.” The poem starts on a somber note, explaining the pains and misunderstandings that mark the youth of a black girl. Then each character states that she is from outside a large metropolitan city: Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Baltimore, San Francisco, Manhattan, and St. Louis. The ladies join to sing familiar children’s rhymes. Subsequently, the lady in brown tags each lady, who then freezes; the lady in brown freezes as well. Next, they all begin to dance to “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas.

The lady in yellow recites the second poem, “graduation nite,” about a night of dancing and parties following a group of students’ graduation from high school. This night ends with lost virginity. The third poem, spoken by the lady in blue, is “now i love somebody more than.” A poem of gratitude for music, it attests the joy that music and dance bring.

The next group of poems expresses feelings of tension, pain, and rebellion. This group consists of four poems: “no assistance,” “i’m a poet who,” “latent rapists,” and “abortion cycle #1.” The first speaker is the lady in red, who recites “no assistance,” a poem of rebellion and disgust. Forcefully, the lady in red berates a lover who has failed to assist her in maintaining their relationship. Having taken the primary responsibility for maintaining the relationship, she is now tired; at the end, she returns her lover’s plant, which she had been tending. The lady in orange immediately begins the next poem, “i’m a poet who,” which declares that because she is a poet, she wants to write, sing, and dance and would rather not—in fact cannot—communicate with people any more. The other ladies join in a dance until a sudden flash of light stops them.

Following introductory lines from the ladies in blue, red, and purple, the lady in red recites the intense poem “latent rapists,” acknowledging the repulsive fact that a rapist is often a personal acquaintance of the victim. In such cases, rape becomes a harsh act of betrayal, difficult or impossible to prosecute. The lady in red...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

For colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf uses dance, music, light, color, and language to demonstrate its meanings and highlight its themes. The colors of the rainbow serve to delineate and distinguish characters and to symbolize the beauty, vitality, and worth of women. Music and dance are used to express the mood of the characters and the intensity of the poetry.

Music, dance, and color are often used simultaneously by Ntozake Shange for dramatic effect. The stage directions specify that harsh music be played at the opening of the play as the women assume postures of distress. The upbeat song “Dancing in the Streets” is heard before the poem “graduation nite,” an exuberant celebration of youth, sexuality, and high spirits, recited by the lady in yellow. After this poem, the ladies join in singing children’s rhymes. Dance is used to symbolize life and vitality throughout the drama.

Sharp music is heard before the first of the “no more love” poems. At the end of this group of poems, the ladies dance again, this time until they fall from exhaustion, symbolizing their freedom and renewal in spite of failed love experiences with men. The choreopoem concludes with joyful singing and with the ladies in a closed, tight circle, sharing their joy and music.

Lighting also contributes to the dramatic effect. Since the play employs no scenery, props, or furniture, lights become the means of emphasizing and isolating each character. Throughout the performance, the ladies move in and out of the spotlight. Blue lights are used to highlight each lady as she enters the stage for the first time.

Obscenities and dialect are used in the play to focus attention on certain themes and to express forceful messages. Violent images are forced home through the use of blatant obscenities. Throughout the text, endings are left off words and vowels are sometimes eliminated; the play is a celebration of the expressiveness of black English.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Ntosake Shange’s “choreopoem” for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf is a dramatic spectacle structured around a series of poetic monologues and dialogues which examine the complex experiences of black women in American society. At its core lies a mission to give voice to the voiceless and to articulate the pains and triumphs of black women through poetry, song, and dance. Shange’s feminist text presents the pains of a sexist environment and posits liberation through the creation of a female collective voice. The poems are read by seven women, each wearing a dress that is one of the colors of the rainbow—blue, green, orange, purple, red, or yellow—plus brown. Alone, the women...

(The entire section is 686 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Ntosake Shange, whose work is frequently anthologized, remains one of the foremost American dramatists. Her piece for colored girls who have considered suicide constitutes one of the more important dramatic works written by an African American author in the late twentieth century. The play, commonly regarded as an articulation of feminist ideology from the perspective of a black woman, had an impressive and critically successful run on Broadway in the mid-1970’s and has been produced all over the world.

Shange’s achievement lies in her ability to demonstrate that the suffering of women can cross ethnic and racial lines. By reaching for elemental truths in the experiences of black women, Shange’s characters demand that audiences pay keen attention to the exposition of issues such as date rape, abortion, spousal abuse, poverty, prostitution, goddess worship, and female sexual liberation and aggression. The work gives credence to the idea that a black woman’s voice has full validity in the women’s movement.

Shange’s play posits a poetics of dramatic presentation that explores experimentation with form and content to create a structure that reflects the thematic intent of the piece. The choric patterns are central to the work and become metaphorical expressions of the need for women to find a collective voice in whatever they do. The dance, music, mime, and storytelling represent the common features of black culture and American women’s culture. Shange harnesses these forms and generates a play that defies easy definitions and classifications. As a feminist piece, it can be appropriated as a forthright articulation of the need of a movement of women to work against a strongly patriarchal world order. More critically, however, she opens the eyes of white feminists to the complexity of the movement because she opens their eyes to the world of black feminists. She simultaneously challenges both the assumptions of white racist society (which includes white feminists) and those of the patriarchal social structure (which includes black men).

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The 1970s: Counterculture Gives Way to Skeptical Indifference
In the 1970s ongoing protest against the war in Vietnam finally...

(The entire section is 1054 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf is a choreopoem, a poem (really a series...

(The entire section is 610 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1970s: During the Civil Rights Movement era of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, African Americans sought freedom to vote, work, and obtain...

(The entire section is 218 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Describe the relationship between movement and arrest or stasis in this choreopoem.

What is the feminist ideology that informs...

(The entire section is 71 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf was produced on June 14,1983, by Public Broadcasting Service's...

(The entire section is 197 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Maya Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Woman" in the collection Chicken Soup for a Woman's Soul celebrates the spiritual and physical aspects...

(The entire section is 236 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Further Reading
Baraka, Imamu Amin. "Black 'Revolutionary' Poets Should Also Be Playwrights, " Black World, April, 1972,...

(The entire section is 386 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Assesses the contributions of Ntozake Shange, Alice Childress, and Lorraine Hansberry to American and African American theater. Provides a particularly insightful analysis of for colored girls.

Christ, Carol P. “ ‘I Found God in Myself . . . & I Loved Her Fiercely’: Ntozake Shange.” In Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest. Boston: Beacon Press, 1980. Describes how the women in the play come to an affirmation of themselves by envisioning a new image that acknowledges...

(The entire section is 996 words.)