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

by Ntozake Shange
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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 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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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 and to improve the quality of their lives. To this purpose, these women become self-absorbed after being frustrated by the significant men in their lives, for whom they were too self-sacrificing, too self-effacing, and too submissive. These ladies resolve that no man shall again tyrannize them. Apprehensive of experiencing physical and emotional abuse in subsequent relationships, the women become independent of men. These ladies articulate the deepest pains of their individual lives and then unite to ward off their mutual adversaries and authors of their grief. Shielded against men, these women console their “sisters” as they share their personal struggles for integrity and autonomy.

In commiserating with one another, the women experience both a communal and an individual discovery of their value and power. They gradually realize that they are survivors of monumental adversities who did not succumb to mental breakdown in the wake of life’s crises.

The lady in red provides a case in point. She enumerates the many methods she used to get a man to love her. The man did not return her love, though he used her to satisfy his lust. When the lady in red dissolves the exploitative relationship, her metamorphosis into an individual who values herself becomes apparent. Summarizing the ordeal, the lady in red says

this waz an experimentto see how selfish i cd beif i wd really carry on to snare a possible loverif i waz capable of debasin myself for the love of anotherif i cd stand not being wanted when i wanted to be wanted& i cannot soi am endin this affairthis note is attached to a plant i’ve been waterin since the day i met youyou may water ityr damn self

Lady in blue offers another narrative that exemplifies the survival of the black woman and her ability to regenerate after victimization. This woman speaks of the myriad excuses black men give black women for their inexcusable behavior. These men, who are unable to provide love, intimacy, and security because of the paralyzing effects of subjugation in the United States, perpetrate emotional and physical abuse against the women in their lives and then attempt to placate them with apologies. The lady in blue is exhausted with her lover’s apologies and suggests that battered African American women cultivate enough self-love to protect themselves and, if necessary, to survive without their abusive men. Her closing statement reflects the intensity of her intolerance of men’s vain apologies:

i loved you on purposei was open on purposei still crave vulnerability & close talk; & i’m not even sorry bout you bein sorryyou can carry all the guilt & grime ya wannajust dont give it to mei cant use another sorrynext time you should admityou’re meanlow-downtriflin& no count straightsteada being sorry alla the timeenjoy bein yrself

Lady in orange, in reflecting on her experience with heartache, gives another example of the black woman’s ability to rebound from adversity. This woman has used music as a panacea for her pain, explaining, “i can make the music loud enuf/ so there is no me but dance/ and when i can dance like that/ there’s nothin cd hurt me.” The music is no tonic for her lover, who is obsessed with another woman whom he had left but returned to several times. To salvage her pride and to regain her self-respect, lady in orange kills her love for the man who trifled with her affection.

In the same vein, lady in purple chooses to “linger in non-english speakin arms so there waz no possibility of understandin” to ensure her own survival against a man who could destroy her. Lady in purple’s deliberate involvement with someone she knows cannot comprehend her suggests that she finds protection against hurt in the inability to communicate the mutual needs and expectations of her lover and herself. Having not voiced their mutual desires, the couple cannot be disappointed when the needs are not met.

Lady in green squanders her love on an indifferent man but averts annihilation the moment she realizes her self-bereavement. Exclaiming “i want my stuff back/ . . . you cant have me less i give me away,” she reclaims her self-esteem and rebuilds her life. Her statement “i gotta have me in my pocket/ to get round like a good woman shd/ & make the poem in the pot and the chicken in the dance” testifies to her self-possession and to her readiness to contribute to life.

Lady in brown pays the choreopoem’s only positive tribute to a black man, in the person of Toussaint L’Ouverture. To an eight-year-old narrator, he is a combination of the Haitian liberator and the friendly black boy who symbolizes audacity and strength. When lady in brown accepts the companionship of a boy named Toussaint Jones, she remarks,

i felt TOUSSAINT L’OUVERTURE sorta leave me& i waz sadtil i realized TOUSSAINT JONES waznt too differentfrom TOUSSAINT L’OUVERTUREcept the ol one was in haiti& this one wid me speakin english & eatin apples

Lady in yellow summarizes the black woman’s predicament: “bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical/ dilemma.” Her statement emphasizes the determination of African American women to rise above the brutality of men and the women’s effort to cope in a universe that militates against their survival.

Places Discussed

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*Camden

*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

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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 is intermittently joined in this piece by the ladies in blue and purple, until an imaginary slap stops them. The lady in blue then begins the next poem, which presents the emotional as well as physical pain and shame that accompany the act of abortion.

The third set of poems—“sechita,” “toussaint,” “one,” “i used to live in the world,” and “Pyramid”—have historical, social, and political themes, references, and images. After the lady in blue finishes, soft voices call “sechita,” and the lady in purple enters to recite the lead-in to that poem. The lady in green enters and finishes the piece and then dances out. This piece evokes images of Egyptian royalty mixed with references to New Orleans “conjurin.” The lady in brown reappears for her most significant piece, “toussaint,” about her discovery of the leader of the Haitian slave rebellion, Toussaint-Louverture, through a library book. She was denied the prize for the colored child who read fifteen books in three weeks because the book came from the adult reading room; she was consoled, however, when she met a real colored boy whose name was Toussaint Jones. Next, the lady in red recites “one,” a bitter, discomforting, melancholy poem of seduction and remorse. The piece is a vivid portrayal of a glittering seductress, who turns into a “regular” colored woman who cries herself to sleep in the early hours of the morning. The next poem in this group, “i used to live in the world,” is recited by the lady in blue; it portrays a disconsolate person trapped in a six-block section of Harlem, which she calls her universe. The final poem in this group is about three women whose friendship is symbolized by the sides of a pyramid. It is again a seduction poem, but here the women are all seduced and betrayed by the same man; however, they remain together and comfort one another.

Sharp music introduces the fourth series of poems, entitled “no more love poems.” The ladies dance and then freeze before the lady in orange recites a poem about the need to be on the receiving end of love, even though the world considers her to be only evil, a bitch, and a nag. The lady in purple has the second poem in this love cycle, which discusses the feelings of pain and heartbreak experienced by women searching for someone to love them. In the third poem, the lady in yellow decries the unfortunate dependency of women on others for love; she is joined by the ladies in green and brown, who repeat vignettes about love for a chorus effect. All then sing and dance together, repeating in chorus proverbs about love. Afterward, the ladies dance together and fall, tired yet full of life and togetherness as a result of their shared experiences with love.

The lady in green extends this camaraderie with “somebody almost walked off with alla my stuff,” a lively, amusing poem that begins the fifth series of poems, which also includes “sorry,” “a nite with beau willie brown,” and “a laying on of hands.” The first poem is a lament for the spiritual and cultural assets that can be stolen by a false lover when a woman gives of herself. The lady in blue responds to this poem of the lady in green with an introduction to the next poem, “sorry.” The other ladies respond with comments on the use of the word “sorry” by unfaithful lovers; then the lady in blue continues the discourse with a longer discussion of the word “sorry,” emphasizing its misuse. The lady in red follows with the violent dramatic poem “a nite with beau willie brown.” Willie Brown is a crazed, drugged Vietnam veteran who commits emotional and physical violence against his girlfriend and his children. In the end, Willie coaxes his children away from their mother, Crystal, and drops them from a fifth-story window.

The final poem, “laying on of hands,” is one of restoration and affirmation. At the conclusion of the choreopoem, the lady in red asserts, “i found god in myself & i loved her . . . fiercely.” All the ladies say this line and begin to sing a soft song, which grows into a loud song of joy. They sing first to one another and then to the audience. At the climax of the drama, the lady in brown closes the choreopoem with lines that reflect its title and purpose:

& this is for colored girls who have consideredsuicide but are movin to the ends of their ownrainbows

Dramatic Devices

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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

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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 appear vulnerable and victimized, but collectively, as a choric voice, they gain strength and find the ability to discover a certain divinity and dignity in themselves.

The piece looks at several experiences of women, ranging from the confessions of a young woman about her first sexual encounter to the vivid and evocative description of a woman’s loss of her two children to the insane pathologies of her boyfriend. In between are stories about women who try to escape the squalor of their existence through dreams of being other than themselves (of being Latina instead of black) and through escape in fantasy. Confessions are important in this work, and the women are candid and explicit in their descriptions of abortion, date rape, and assault and abuse by men. The actors dramatize each story through the use of dance and stylized movement.

A stripper who dances for money in wrestling tents discovers that her way of escape from her squalid existence can only be through a fantasy of being an African goddess, an Egyptian icon whose dignity Shange celebrates. Her striptease act metamorphoses into the mystic dance of the Egyptian goddess Sechita. She makes the point that the stripper still possesses the capacity for dignity and beauty. Shange repeats this pattern in a later piece in which a woman declares to the world that someone has stolen her “stuff.” Her stuff constitutes everything that belongs to her as a woman, as a black person, as a human being. Her music, her dance, her language, her sexuality, and her capacity to love are all stolen from her by an individual who happens to be male. She expresses the loss in a language and style that is blues-like in its capacity for humor and self-reflective satire.

The women are sexually expressive and identify a close link between who they are and how they define their sexuality. They seek to demand sexual gratification despite the negative associations that may come with that demand and appear to have come to a cynical understanding of the deceit and hypocrisy of their male lovers. Yet the women remain committed to the dream of a genuine sexual and emotional relationship with a man. The collective thinking described here effectively pulls the women together.

At the end of the piece, however, Shange posits that any attempt by women to rely on men for security and a sense of self must be futile and misguided. The climactic story of Crystal and Beau Willie emphasizes this point. Beau Willie, a sympathetically drawn Vietnam veteran hooked on alcohol and drugs, manages to persuade Crystal to drop her guard even though she knows that he is inclined to abuse her and to act out his destructive selfishness. He grabs hold of their children, dangles them out a fifth-story window, and then drops them when she is slow in responding to his proposal of marriage. This act constitutes a powerful dramatic moment from which Shange must derive the potential for hope and possibility.

The women discover hope in a religious ritual in which they declare that they have found divinity in themselves, in their femininity, and in their collective strength. Shange not only offers a detailed examination of the lives of several women but also crystallizes, in the process, her singular vision and imagination through the infusion of her creative intelligence into the structure and form of the piece.

Context

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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

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The 1970s: Counterculture Gives Way to Skeptical Indifference
In the 1970s ongoing protest against the war in Vietnam finally resulted in a massive withdrawal of American troops, culminating in the Fall of Saigon in 1975. The war had cost America billions of dollars, 56,000 U.S. lives, and the credibility of the U.S. military. It would have cost President Nixon his credibility, had he not already sullied himself with Watergate, a cover-up that failed as one by one his minions, fearing prosecution, exposed Nixon's extensive and illegal system for spying on the Democratic party. Confidence in the government hit an all-time low and inflation instigated a pervasive sense of pessimism about the future. Young people sought refuge in the sudden abundance of discotheques, where they gyrated to formulaic and repetitive tunes that required little thought or imagination; other forms of escapism prevailed.

The Civil Rights Movement Collides with the Feminist Movement
While the Civil Rights Movement contained an inner conflict between militant Black Panthers and Malcolm X and the passive resistance promoted by Martin Luther King, Jr., the feminist movement was a virtual study in contrasts. Barbie doll sales hit the first of many sales peaks in 1963, just when women were proclaiming their right not to be measured by an unhealthy physical ideal. Twiggy, a skinny model weighing no more than 95 pounds, exemplified the new antifeminine figure. At the same time that the popularity of hotpants and topless bathing suits contributed to revealing female fashions, women expressed resentment at being viewed as sex objects. Miniskirt hemlines shot up and then dropped to maxi ankle-length in 1972, around the same time that many women expressed a preference to be addressed as Ms. instead of Mrs. or Miss. Pantsuits replaced the requisite skirt at many workplaces. The first black Barbie doll hit the market in 1968, the same year that Shirley Chisolm became the first black female member of the House of Representatives. During this period of sexual upheaval women's lib consisted of sexual freedom bordering on licentiousness (made possible by the widespread availability of the birth control pill in the early 1960s) oddly coupled with the suppression of sexuality as a marker of female identity. Divorce rates began a climb that did not slow for several decades as women became economically and socially self-sufficient.

Unfortunately, neither the Civil Rights Movement nor the Women's Liberation movement made a viable place for black women. This situation would change, partly as a result of Shange's play. African Americans, no longer referred to as colored people, sought to amend their identity by embracing
their African heritage. Alex Haley's 1976 epic, Roots, played a large role in the popularity of African heritage and raised many African Americans' awareness of their own genealogies. Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun had tangentially alluded to potential difficulties for African American relations with Africans, specifically for black women. In the play, Beneatha Younger cuts her hair in an afro style, dons African dress, and plays African music, but she refuses to marry her African suitor and relocate to Africa, preferring the more obstacle-ridden course of pursuing a career as a doctor in racist America. Her plight remains unresolved at the end of the play. By the 1970s, black female identity was still largely subsumed beneath black identity and female identity. For Shange to proclaim in 1976 that black women were oppressed was not news but to declare that they were oppressed by black males (in addition to white society as a whole) was a revelation. Shange showed that black women existed on the bottomost rung of the social hierarchy. The budding women's movement crossed paths with the growing civil rights movement to reveal that black women were doubly oppressed.

The expression of rage in for colored girls..., directed primarily at black males, caused a stir in 1976. The journal Black Scholar ran a series of debates on black sexism. Robert Staples voiced the sense of shock felt by some black men that black women would turn against their racial brothers, and black women accused Staples and others who expressed similar opinions of ignoring the ways in which black males did in fact oppress their racial sisters. It is a debate that lost its intensity over the next ten years as black women found strength in their racial and gender identity. Ultimately black women rose in social status so that by the 1990s black men stood on the bottom of the social hierarchy, a situation that prompted the Million Man March on Washington D.C, an event organized by Louis Farrakhan in 1995.

Theater
Drama in the 1960s was a forum for challenging convention, for experimenting with new styles. The stage musical Hair in 1967 introduced nudity, shocking language, and celebration of the hippie lifestyle, an aesthetic that valued personal expressions of uniqueness and freedom over more mainstream, middle-class values, and shocked the nation on its wildly controversial road tour. In 1969 Oh, Calcutta, a series of erotic sketches, made Hair look tame in comparison. In 1971 Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar committed what many felt was a sacrilege, namely conflating religion with Broadway spectacle, to huge success. However, rising inflation in the 1970s slowed the impetus of experimental theater. One of the few notable works produced besides for colored girls... was The Wiz, a version of The Wizard of Oz in which the characters are black and the settings are urban. The play began a run of over 1,000 performances in 1975. By this time such novelties as audience interaction, open staging, unconventional costuming, and revolutionary content had become theatrical stock-in-trade. Musicals no longer consisted of the blithe romance of a Rodgers and Hammerstein production; now audiences expected to be shocked and challenged as a form of entertainment. In black theater Imamu Amiri Baraka (also known as LeRoi Jones) broke with tradition by producing works centered on racial confrontation. Shange adopted his radical use of slashes, lower case letters, phonetic spelling and dialect as well as his militant program of making theater a center for consciousness-raising for black rights and for building the black community. Baraka expressed the belief that theatre was more effective at reaching a wider black audience than were other media, Shange (the second black female playwright to have her work produced on Broadway, the first being Lorraine Hansberry) proved that theatre could be just as effective at reaching white audiences.

Literary Style

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Choreopoem
for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf is a choreopoem, a poem (really a series of 20 separate poems) choreographed to music. The performers dance the poems as well as narrate the lines. These are not poems set to music with accompanying dance steps, but an integration of movement, gesture, and music that together comprise the choreopoem. Improvisation is central to the choreopoem, allowing the performer to adjust the performance to her own mood and that of the audience. Shange invented this medium as a way to produce a new space for the expression of black culture, a medium that would not be judged by the stifling conventions of European and American theater because it defies definition.

Symbolism
As the title of the choreopoem implies, the rainbow is a predominant symbol in the play, one consciously applied to the ladies' costumes, which are the colors of the rainbow, plus brown. The presence of brown in the rainbow of colors symbolizes black identity within the rainbow of existence. The rainbow itself signifies the multiplicity of experience and the many facets of identity. "The rainbow is a fabulous symbol for me," Shange explained in a quote from an article by Mark Ribowsky that appeared in Sepia magazine, "If you see only one color, it's not beautiful. If you see them all, it is. A colored girl, by ray definition, is a girl of many colors. But she can only see her overall beauty if she can see all the colors of herself. To do that, she has to look deep inside her. And when she looks inside herself, she will find... love and beauty."

Monologue
The twenty poems of for colored girls... were written and read at women's bars in San Francisco long before Shange decided to weave them together into a formal dramatic production. Thus, each poem exists and stands on its own, often narrated in monologue (a dramatic sketch performed by one actor) by one of the ladies, while the other performers look on, encourage, or enact the story. The collection of monologues narrated by different performers (not characters per se because they take on different roles) gives a sense of multiple perspectives, of fragmentation. However, each fragment amplifies the others such that they are unified by a common theme, the rendering of black female identity.

Leitmotif
Leitmotif is defined as music that signifies an idea, person, or situation. Musical motifs run throughout the play. Besides the music and dance that are integral to the choreopoems, music and musical terms are used as metaphors to describe the condition of "colored girls," which moves from disharmony to wholeness in the course of the play. In the opening poem, words and phrases such as "half-notes," "without rhythm," "no tune," "the melody-less-ness of her dance" evoke an image of clumsy discord for young black women who have been denied their girlhood. But by the end of the play, all of the ladies dance and chant together in harmony and evidently have found a rhythm that expresses their identity fully. Music also lures women dangerously toward men, as when a virgin, pretending sexual prowess while dancing to the Dells' "Stay,'' later loses her virginity to one of her dance partners; it is also a refuge against men, as the lady in purple implies when she says "music waz my ol man." Sometimes it allows women to transcend reality for a time but but only temporarily. Sechita finds a source of power in music, using dance to "conjure" the cracker men in the audience of a tawdry carnival. Ultimately, music becomes part of the harmony of the black female identity.

Compare and Contrast

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1970s: During the Civil Rights Movement era of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, African Americans sought freedom to vote, work, and obtain an education equal to white Americans. Women, almost exclusively white women, began the women's liberation movement in the 1960s. But both groups excluded black women, who had even more difficulty than black men in finding an equitable place in society.

Today: Louis Farrakhan's 1995 Million Man March in Washington, D.C. acknowledged that black men must step up to greater responsibility in the black American family, providing the respect to black women for which the women of Shange's play hoped.

1970s: Opportunities for black women were limited by societal restraints and a culture that was slow to accept them in arenas such as business, politics, and the arts. Following Lorraine Hansberry's bow on Broadway, it was nearly twenty years before Shange, the second black woman playwright on Broadway, made her debut.

Today: While black Americans in general, and particularly black women, still have a great ways to go in attaining equality in American society, many have made significant inroads, thanks in great part to the pioneering spirit of women like Shange, poet Maya Angelou, and politicians such as Barbara Jordan. Playwrights such as Anna Deveare Smith owe a great deal to Shange's innovations, both socially and dramatically.

Media Adaptations

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for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf was produced on June 14,1983, by Public Broadcasting Service's American Playhouse, starring Patti LaBelle as the lady in brown, with music arranged by Baikida Carroll. LaBelle brings a decidedly gospel rendering of the music to the play. Shange discusses the adaptation process in TV Guide, February 20, 1982, pp. 14-15.

The original sound recording of the Broadway production of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf was recorded by Buddah Records, catalog number BDS 95007-OC, 1976.

Offended by the negative image of black males they saw in Shange's work, a group of prison inmates created a parody entitled For Colored Guys Who Have Gone beyond Suicide and Found No Rainbow: A Choreopoem/Drama. The authors are James Able, Harrison Bennet, Harry McClelland, John Mingo, Roland Roberston, and Baari Shabazz; all male prisoners who constituted the Writers Club at the Maryland House of Correction for Men in Jessup, Maryland, 1986. The inmates' play borders on misogyny in its allegation that the problems faced by black men result from the inability of black women to sympathize with the men's struggle to survive in a racist sociopolitical system.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Further Reading
Baraka, Imamu Amin. "Black 'Revolutionary' Poets Should Also Be Playwrights, " Black World, April, 1972, pp. 4-7.
A manifesto for black playwrights to use the theater as a platform for demanding social change.

Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America, Greenwood Press, 1988.
A treatise on the influence of black female playwrights with part of one chapter devoted to Shange.

Sources
Barnes, Clive. "Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Opens at Papp's Anspacher Theater," New York Times, June 2, 1976, p. 44.

Cronacher, Karen. "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange" in International Dictionary of Theatre Plays, pp. 258-60, St. James, 1992.

Davis, Angela. "Ntozake Shange Interview with Angela Davis," Videotape, American Poetry Archives, The Poetry Center, San Francisco State University, May 5, 1989.

Flower, Sandra Holhn. "Colored Girls—Textbook for the Eighties" in Black American Literature Forum ,Vol. 15 (1981), p. 52.

Harris, Jessica. "for colored girls... from Ntozake to Broadway" in New York Amsterdam News/Arts and Entertainment, October 9, 1976, p. D 1.

Hooks, Bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, South End (Boston), 1989.

Lester, Neal A. "Shange's Men for colored girls... Revisited, and Movement Beyond" in African American Review Vol. 26, no. 2, 1992.

Lester, Neal. A Ntozake Shange—A Critical Study of the Plays, Garland Publishing, 1995.

New York Times, June 16, 1976.

Olaniyan, Tejumola. "Ntozake Shange: The Vengeance of Difference, or The Gender of Black Cultural Identity" in Scars of Conquest, Masks of Resistance. The Invention of Cultural Identities in African, African-American, and Caribbean Drama, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Ribowsky, Mark. "A Poetess Scores a Hit with Play on What's Wrong with Black Men" in Sepia, December 25, 1976, p. 46.

Rich, Alan. "Theater: For Audiences of any color when 'Rex' is not enuf" in New York, June 14, 1976, p. 62.

Richards, Sandra L. "Conflicting Impulses in the Plays of Ntozake Shange" in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 17, no. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 73-78.

Simon, John. "Stage 'Enuf is Not Enough" in New Leader Vol. 59, July 5, 1976.

Smith, Yvonne. "Ntozake Shange: A 'Colored Girl' Considers Success" in Essence, February, 1982, p 12.

Tate, Claudia P. "Ntozake Shange" in Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum, 1983, pp. 149-174.

Timpane, John. "'The Poetry of a Moment'- Politics and the Open Forum in the Drama of Ntozake Shange" in Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present, Vol. 4, 1989, pp. 91-101.

Trescott, Jaquelme. "Ntozake Shange: Searching for Respect and Identity" in Washington Post, June 29, 1976, p. B5.

Bibliography

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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 their history and moves beyond it to “the ends of their own rainbows.”

DeShazer, Mary K. “Rejecting Necrophilia: Ntosake Shange and the Warrior Re-Visioned.” In Making a Spectacle, edited by Lynda Hart. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1989. DeShazer presents Shange as a warrior-woman, reinventing the term “warrior” from a feminist perspective. A good study of the feminist politics in Shange’s plays.

Flowers, Sandra Hollin. “Colored Girls: Textbook for the Eighties.” Black American Literature Forum 15 (Summer, 1981): 51-54. Focuses on the quality of relationships between African American men and women. Discusses several of the poems that compose for colored girls.

Geis, Deborah R. “Distraught Laughter: Monologue in Ntosake Shange’s Theater Pieces.” In Feminine Focus, edited by Enoch Brater. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1989. Geis argues that Shange’s use of monologues and other dramatic devices is tied directly to her quest to create a distinctly Afrocentric dramaturgy. Geis posits that Shange’s success in this regard is elemental to her stature as a dominant innovator in modern theater.

Gussow, Mel. “Stage: ‘Colored Girls’ on Broadway.” The New York Times, September 16, 1976, p. 20. Examines the play as it defines what it means to be a black woman in white America. Gussow also explores the evolution of the play, beginning with early performances while it was still in the process of being composed.

Kalem, T. E. “He Done Her Wrong.” Time 107 (June 14, 1976): 74. Suggests that the play is an indictment of African American men, who in the play “are portrayed as brutal con men and amorous double-dealers.”

Keyssar, Helene. The Curtain and the Veil: Strategies in Black Drama. New York: Burt Franklin, 1982. Keyssar explores with authority the dynamics of ritual and ideology in African American drama. Her discussion on Shange’s work provides useful insight into the organic relationship between form and content in Shange’s feminist aesthetic.

Keyssar, Helene. “Rites and Responsibilities: The Drama of Black American Women.” In Feminine Focus, edited by Enoch Brater. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1989. Keyssar tackles the problematic issue of “double-voicedness” in the plays of African American women. Her commentary on Shange illustrates the complex challenges inherent in Shange’s works that seek to speak both to feminist issues and issues of race. A useful contextualization of Shange’s work with the plays of other important African American women playwrights.

Latour, Martine. “Ntozake Shange: Driven Poet/Playwright,” in Mademoiselle. LXXXII (September, 1976), pp. 182-226.

Lester, Neal A. Ntozake Shange: A Critical Study of the Plays. New York: Garland, 1995.

Lewis, Barbara. “The Poet,” in Essence. VII (November, 1976), pp. 17-19.

Miller, Jeanne-Marie A. “Black Women Playwrights from Grimké to Shange: Selected Synopses of Their Works.” In All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave, edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith. Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1982. Provides a plot summary of for colored girls.

Mitchell, Carolyn. “ ‘A Laying on of Hands’: Transcending the City in Ntosake Shange’s for colored girls. . . .” In Women Writers and the City, edited by Susan Merrill Squier. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984. Mitchell’s analysis of Shange’s play explores the spiritual and political implications of cleansing and healing in the work.

Richards, Sandra L. “Conflicting Impulses in the Plays of Ntozake Shange.” Black American Literature Forum 17, no. 2 (Summer, 1983): 73-78. Sees Shange’s sources in new world African religions such as santería and in two traditions of contemporary theater: Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater and Antonin Artaud’s theater of cruelty.

Rushing, Andrea Benton. “For Colored Girls, Suicide or Struggle.” The Massachusetts Review 22, no. 3 (Autumn, 1981): 539-550. Rushing argues that the play is rooted in Shange’s experience as a middle-class, geographically rootless, highly educated black woman who came of age in the 1960’s and who had attempted suicide at least twice. She claims Shange is alienated from the two traditional support systems of black womanhood: the extended family and the black church.

Shange, Ntosake. “Ntosake Shange: An Interview.” Interview by Edward K. Brown II. Poets and Writers 21, no. 3 (1993): 38-47. In this candid interview, Shange forthrightly addresses some of the criticism that she received for her portrayal of African American men. She is characteristically outspoken and articulate about her mission as a writer, which she sees as speaking the truth about sexism and racism in society. A useful introduction to the polemic and intelligence of Shange.

Shange, Ntozake. See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays and Accounts, 1976-1983. San Francisco: Momo Press, 1984.

Vandergrift, Kay E. “And Bid Her Sing: A White Feminist Reads African-American Female Poets.” In African-American Voices: Tradition, Transition, Transformation, edited by Karen Patricia Smith. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1994. Emphasizes the power of the song elements in the play, showing how bebop and jazz rhythms combine with literary, socio-political, and popular culture references in the poems.

Wilkerson, Margaret B. “Music as Metaphor: New Plays of Black Women.” In Making a Spectacle, edited by Lynda Hart. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989. Wilkerson’s study of music in Black women’s drama devoted some attention to Shange’s use of music as political statement.

Wilson, Edwin. Review of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, by Ntozake Shange. The Wall Street Journal, September 21, 1976, p. 19. Wilson observes that the play captures the triple disfranchisement of being young, African American, and female. He notes that rather than despairing, Shange’s black women discover their own rainbow in humor and in an increasing awareness of worth.

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