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

by Ntozake Shange

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Compare and contrast Nitozake Shange's poem "for colored girls who considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf" and Tyler Perry's movie "For Colored Girls."

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The film adaption of for colored girls is more linear and easier to follow than the stage play, but still maintains the emotional connection between characters and audience through the cast's outstanding performances.

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The 1975 choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange is a moving portrayal of African American women’s experiences of racism, sexism, loss, abuse, and self-acceptance. It poses certain challenges for film adaptation.

for colored girls developed from specific events and places in the 1970s, starting with the author’s suicide attempt as a young woman and then branching out to include West Coast feminism, the practice of consciousness-raising led by activists, and the Black Arts movement. Shange also cites the influential work of artistic pioneers such as African American writer Zora Neale Hurston, German Expressionist artist Kathe Kollwitz, and Asian American actress Anna May Wong. Contemporary audiences might not be well-versed in this history or might have lost a connection the urgency of 1960s and 1970s activism. Perry’s 2010 film adaptation For Colored Girls therefore places the characters in a contemporary setting, which makes the content more immediate to audiences.

As a stage play, for colored girls is performed with a cast of seven performers who take turns reciting a connected series of poems. They are not identified by name, but by titles with their designated rainbow colors plus brown. Shange created the term choreopoem to describe the poem collection as a living work that is meant to be performed to connect with an audience.

However, a stage performance with characters named after concepts who remain in one space could be too abstract and static for contemporary film audiences. Perry adapted the poems into a series of connected scenes with named characters (while keeping their attributed colors with clothing) to create a more linear narrative while still maintaining the emotional connection between characters and audience through the cast's outstanding performances. Perry also added characters such as Gilda/Lady in Black/the apartment manager (Phylicia Rashad) who recites lines spoken by the rainbow characters in the play.

Note how Perry weaves together and paces out the poems “graduation nite,” “abortion cycle #1” and “i used to to live in the world,” as portrayed by characters Rose/Lady in Pink (Macy Gray) and Nyla/Lady in Purple (Tessa Thompson). Examine how he portrays the poems “a nite with beau willie brown” and “a laying on of hands” through Crystal/Lady in Brown (Kimberly Elise). Note also how the settings for the character of Juanita Sims/Lady in Green (Loretta Devine) and her work as a nurse and organizer pay tribute to the consciousness-raising groups of the 70s—in particular the group setting for “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff.” Note also the contrast in the portrayal of the poem “toussaint” about Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian revolutionary in the book and in the film.

While the film adaption is more linear, easier to follow, and features talented actors, it could be argued that by easing up on the rigor of feminist poetry and challenges of a new genre like the choreopoem, the author’s original intentions are sidetracked in a work that feels more like a mainstream dramatic film than a feminist and black activist challenge to the American status quo.

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The foundational element of comparison between both might be given by Shange, herself: 

When I die, I will not be guilty,' Shange proclaimed in an interview with Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work, 'of having left a generation of girls behind thinking that anyone can tend to their emotional health other than themselves.

Both works seek to articulate the convergent conditions of gender, race, class, and psychology upon one's identity.  In this light, both the choreopoem and the film are similar.  It is important to note that the film had a fairly difficult task in transcribing what Shange created onto film for a couple of reasons.  The first would be that poetry contains a level of the subjective experience and precision that is difficult to transfer over the silver screen.  One of the common critiques of the film was that it added melodrama to what was in the poem.  For example, when an abortion is described with "steel rods," how can this be shown on screen and convey its emotional heat without an effect that repulses?  The choreopoem's ability to bring out emotional and intellectual themes that resonated in both mind and heart is something that was going to challenge the film with a star- studded cast, where one of the two elements could be addressed, while missing the other.  I think that the film is certainly quality in attempting to bring out the condition that the poem brings out, but the poem carries with it a level of depth and experience in its specific, yet anonymous setting that the film narrows down to the specific character.  For example, the poem identifies women through specific color and while the reader/ audience does not know anything about them, Shange is able to bring out everything about them.  The film allows us to know specific characters with specific names, not something in the poem, and this allows us to understand their predicaments, but does not broaden it to others like the choreopoem does.  This might be one specific difference between both works.

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