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

"bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma/ i havent conquered yet" -- Lady in Brown
A scene from "for colored girls. . ." (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Somehow I'd missed the slash mark. Maybe I first heard the title -- for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf -- read aloud or maybe I just misread it or saw it printed without the two halves clearly separated. Whatever the case may be, I was always perplexed by the title of Ntozake Shange's groundbreaking choreopoem and by the contradictions that emerge without that crucial punctuation.

As an alternate title for the work -- or maybe an alternative to the despair of the title's first half -- "when the rainbow is enuf" refers to the quasi-characters who inhabit the world of the play. Now, for colored girls is back at the Public Theater where the piece emerged in 1976 before swiftly transferring to a successful Broadway run.

Director Leah C. Gardiner has crafted a production nourished by the affection shown and attention paid across this rainbowed community: seven women, whose dresses (strikingly designed by Toni-Leslie James) are tessellated with the faces of each actress' most cherished female relative, each represent a different hue of the experiences of women of color in this country. (The piece comfortably opens the umbrella to foreground Afro-Latina stories, too.) Gardiner celebrates what comes beyond the title's slash mark with a clarity that ensures we do not miss its meaning: for colored girls remains a choral anthem in honor of the engulfing compassion of a group of women of color who hear each other and transform one another's trauma into art.

The light absorbed from the performers and refracted back towards the audience by this shimmering production is the light generated from a community of women who listen -- non-judgmentally, caringly, intently -- to one another. They listen silently, sometimes, from the sidelines, but they are ready to move forward, to support -- physically, in the wake of a gutting retelling that sends the speaker reeling, and emotionally -- when the time comes. But they also sometimes listen with active passion, spinning verses into footsteps as they do so: while one woman tells a tale of triumph or trauma, another woman standing beside her will dance it.

Despite the lofty place for colored girls occupies in the theatrical pantheon, and despite the gorgeously mirrored playing space designed in the round by Myung Hee Cho, some of the most special moments are the ones that feel least like a stage performance and most like a communal share or open mic. As the women watch one another, they'll sometimes sip from water bottles or dab their brows with handkerchiefs. At times the lines between character and actor blurs; during one dance break, the Lady in Yellow cheered on the Lady in Blue, calling out, "Go Sasha!" (That's Sasha Allen, a former semi-finalist on The Voice , who stands out both as a singer and monologist here.) And it is as if they are hearing the words for the first heartbreaking time when the Lady in Red (Jayme Lawson) unfurls her harrowing story of unfathomable loss, her tilting voice deepening into a despairing cello in the monologue's final moments.

Camille A. Brown, whose phenomenal choreography animated the ensembles of Choir Boy and the Metropolitan Opera's Porgy and Bess earlier this year, turns now to the meticulous sculpting of individual figures in interwoven motion. There's the Lady in Purple (Alexandria Wailes), whose storytelling fluently fuses American Sign Language with improvisatory grace and the Lady in Yellow (Adrienne C. Moore), an exuberant delight, inviting her sisters-in-stories to join with her as a schoolyard chants morphs into an ebullient step routine. And when the Lady in Green dances -- played by Okwui Okpokwasili, recipient of one of last year's MacArthur "genius" grants for her own choreography -- her movement ripples with specificity, strength, and the sense that, as Shange writes, "there is no me but dance."

Only when the focus on the cast as ensemble shifts into the background does for colored girls give up some of its gripping ground. Composer Martha Redbone, whose smooth, warm live music (with music direction from Deah Harriott) breathes vital life through much of the show, has set to music one poem, a later work of Shange's added to this iteration of for colored girls , as a thrilling solo feat for Allen. The astonishing vocalist turns the text -- "I could sleep with a man, but I'll lie with the souls of black folks," the poem begins -- into a euphoric, plaintive hymn that's almost overwhelming to hear. But perhaps because Allen is so stirring a singer, I found myself overlooking Shange's words when they appeared in song for a prolonged period as they do here. As much as Shange surely would have urged a celebration of Allen's bounteous gifts, these moments of intensely glorious singing back away from the more immediately interdisciplinary merging of language and movement that characterize most of the piece as originally written.

It's hard to re-learn how to listen quietly after hearing that glistening song. But maybe focusing on the story being told in front of you -- not on the one you'd rather be hearing -- is part of the lesson that for colored girls continues to teach.

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by Ntozake Shange
Directed by Leah C. Gardiner
Choregrapher: Camille A. Brown
Music Composer: Martha Redbone
Cast: Sasha Allen, Celia Chevalier, Danaya Esperanza, Jayme Lawson, Adrienne C. Moore, Okwui Okpokwasili, Alexandria Wailes, and D. Woods
Set Designer: Myung Hee Cho
Costume Designer: Toni-Leslie James
Lighting Designer: Jiyoun Chang
Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama
Music Director: Deah Harriott
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Public Theater, Martinson Theater, 425 Lafayette Street (at Astor Place)
From 10/8/19; opening 10/22/19; closing 12/1/19
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 8; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 and 8
Reviewed by Dan Rubins at 10/18 performance

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