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.