For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf
The classic choreopoem becomes a tight ensemble piece in seven-part harmony
Reviewed by Jillian Owens, Fri., Sept. 9, 2011
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is EnufThe Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 478-5282
Through Sept. 10
Running time: 1 hr., 40 min.
On a stage bare save for two beat-up, mismatched chairs, seven women stand frozen. One speaks, drumming a rhythm: "dark phrases of womanhood, of never having been a girl." A second joins with plucking bass, a third adds warbling trumpet, and a fourth lends her tenor sax. Soon seven voices form a figurative jazz band, eventually ebbing again into cool silence.
These are the opening chords of Ntozake Shange's seminal 1975 African-American feminist choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, directed for UpRise! Productions by Austin hip-hop theatre innovator Zell Miller III. Like a soloist improvising variations on a melody, Miller has transposed the sequence of poems – most of them written to be performed by a single actor – into a tight ensemble piece in a seven-part harmony (although badass Ebony Stewart as the Lady in Red and effervescent Chandra Washington as the Lady in Blue give standout performances). The whole cast remains onstage to split or share lines in unexpected yet fluid rhythms. Add hauntingly beautiful modern choreography by Sadé Jones and Ananda Mayi Moss and the cast's unpretentious a cappella vocal stylings, and the polyphony is complete. Miller, fusing these layers to create the jazz aesthetic for which he has become known, makes Shange's words sing as smoothly as Ella Fitzgerald, despite an occasional excess of movement, which turns the stage into a cacophony of bodies moving in too many directions.
Now, for a theatergoer accustomed to Western plot- and dialogue-driven performances, Shange's occasionally esoteric poetry coupled with Miller's experimental aesthetic may make For Colored Girls seem inaccessible. But once you get into the swing of the play, the actresses become a couple of women sitting around sharing those "dark phrases of womanhood": the sweetness of a child with an imaginary friend, the pain of an abortion, and the devastation of vengeful murder. The obvious personal and emotional connections that link the performers to these stories and to one another help them play in harmony, a bond that the audience shared during opening weekend, cheering and gasping empathetically.
For Colored Girls is like live jazz. You may not recognize subtle time-signature changes or understand the precision of syncopation, but you know you like what you hear. You may not be a woman or black or an experimental theatre enthusiast, but there is much to appreciate in the sincere ensemble of this For Colored Girls. As Miller said in a talkback session, "If the saxophone player gets too into himself, the whole thing is fucked." But For Colored Girls never is.