Reflections, a critical review
for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the
rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange at The Booth Theatre,
May 5, 2022
A year into the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, I read Ntozake Shange’s posthumous book Dance We Do A Poet Explores Black Dance, a tribute to those who taught her and nurtured her passion for rhythm, movement and dance, featuring interviews with dance luminaries. This archive and celebration of pioneers in Black Dance is another example of how the dynamic artist challenges expectations of form and genre to center authentic shared storytelling.
On May 5, 2022, I attended the award-winning herstory-making Broadway revival ‘for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf’ by Ntozake Shange at the Booth Theatre in New York. The show ran from April 20, 2022 through June 5, 2022. Directed and choreographed by Camille A. Brown, the first Black woman to direct a Broadway show in 65 years, the production received numerous accolades, two Chita Rivera Awards: Outstanding Ensemble in a Broadway Show and Outstanding Female Dancer in a Broadway Show for Tendayi Kuumba’s performance, and among its seven Tony nominations, Brown became the first person to ever be nominated for both Best Direction of a Play and Best Choreography.
I was overjoyed to witness this powerful production, with such a stellar cast and team. Since this impactful first-hand live theatrical experience, I’ve learned more about the playwright and the show’s evolution. First, I will share these learnings from several sources, and then I will offer my personal reflections from the show.
Ntozake Shange (1948-2018) is an icon of American theater and Black women’s performance and literature. Ntozake means “she who comes with her own things,” in Xhosa, and Shange means “she who walks like a lion,” in Zulu. Before taking on this name in 1971, she was known as Paulette Williams. She grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, and St. Louis Missouri. Her father was a surgeon, and her mother was an educator and psychiatric social worker.
In 1966, Shange enrolled at Barnard College, where she was active in the movement for Black studies and graduated cum laude in American studies in 1970. She earned a master’s degree in American studies in 1973 from the University of Southern California.
While living in California, Shange danced with Halifu Osumare’s company and performed in the San Francisco area. She worked with Paula Moss, who would later choreograph the original production of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Moss and Shange left California for New York and performed together in a Soho jazz loft and in bars on the Lower East Side. Producer Woodie King Jr. saw one of these and produced the debut of for colored girls…Off-Broadway at the New Federal Theatre, directed by Oz Scott. The play then moved to the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theatre, and then to Broadway at the Booth Theatre for 742 performances. The revival of for colored girls…at the Public Theater in 2019, directed by Leah C. Gardiner and choreographed by Camille A. Brown, ran for nine, sold-out weeks and swept the year’s theater awards. It won the Obie Award and was nominated for a Tony and a Grammy. It has been published in book form, and in 2010, Tyler Perry wrote, produced and directed the film adaptation, For Colored Girls, starring Whoopi Goldberg, Phylicia Rashad, Janet Jackson, and Loretta Devine.
In addition to fourteen plays, Shange is the author of four poetry collections, seven novels, and six children’s books. An Emmy, Tony, and Grammy award nominee, she was honored as a Living Legend by the National Black Theatre Festival, the Langston Hughes Medal, the Hurston/Wright Award, two Obies, a Pushcart Prize and countless other awards.
Her “choreopoem” for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf is Shange’s masterwork, acclaimed as a theater classic and acknowledged as foundational in the history of theater. It combines the spoken word with poetry, music and dance. Much of her work was made or adapted for performance onstage, for it was theater where her radical explorations combining form and genre could be realized. Her major contribution, the “choreopoem”, was a new theatrical genre she invented that incorporates the spoken word as a prominent element – thereby widening the creative palette and transforming theater.
Choreopoems scholar, author and teacher Monica Prince further defines the genre:
A choreopoem is a choreographed series of poems that integrates performance poetry,
dance, music, song and live art. The genre focuses on blending different art media on
stage to articulate a complex or emotional experience. It shies away from traditional
drama narrative, and instead utilizes poetry to highlight separate “rooms” of thought that
all relate to a central theme.
In the 2022 Broadway production, the crafted poetry “rooms” held a vigorous force on their own. Knitted together, they cultivated a welcoming home for multi-faceted expressions of women, their strength and stories.
“I use movement to tell stories. And one of the beautiful
things about the choreopoem is that Shange is leading with
movement. It’s not often that it’s put at the center. For her,
movement and language coexist.” ~ Camille A. Brown
Camille A. Brown’s choreography included high energy playful exchanges among the ensemble, call and response motifs, grounded and stylized postures during solo acts, American Sign Language woven across gestural phrases, and healthy spaces for breath and contemplation. All of the women carried distinct voices of conviction, sharing their stories with varying rhythms, pronounced facial expressions, and a gorgeous range of emotion. The vibrancy could not be contained. Kenita R. Miller as Lady in Red, performed while nine months pregnant. Her tremendous energy and gripping performance of “a nite with beau willie brown” raised everyone’s goosebumps.
One of the choreopoem solos which lives vividly in my memory is ‘Someone almost walked off wid alla my stuff’, performed by Okwui Okpokwasili as Lady in Green. Okwui commanded attention, delivering the monologue downstage, center. Her six foot tall, lean physique was unshakable.
Somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
not my poems or a dance i gave up in the street
but somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
like a kleptomaniac workin hard & forgettin while stealin.
This is mine.
This aint your stuff.
Now, why don’t you put me back & let me hang out in my own
At one point, she bends her knees and comes to the ground. Her specificity in the plié and clarity of embodiment astounded me. How can an everyday movement be expressed with so much majesty and change? At this low level by the stage’s edge, her demands neither softened nor dimmed. Her torso and chest remained open as she continued speaking in a full, supported voice. Her tempos rocked as she returned to her feet, standing and confronting with searing truth:
Hey man, this is not your prerogative.
I gotta have me in my pocket,
to get round like a good woman should,
& make the poem in the pot or the chicken in the dance.
Bending right below the waist and pointing her articulate arm and finger into the air, she precisely named what she wanted back, what was solely and uniquely hers. Pointing out the cruelty, her voice expressed the sharp quickness of a grab, yank and jolt.
Almost run off wit alla my stuff,
& I didn’t know i’d give it up so quick.
& the one runnin wit it don’t know he
& I’m shoutin this is mine!
& he dont know he got it.
Okwui will be in the Studio Residency at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from July 30 through August 28, 2022. The museum notes “Okpokwasili explores the roles of African and African American women by creating multidisciplinary performance pieces that seek to shape the shared space inhabited by the audience and performer. “I want to build full and rich characters with integrity, brown bodies laboring within a very specific and charged context,” says the artist. Her productions, created in collaboration with acclaimed designer Peter Born, are experimental in form, bringing together elements of dance, theater, and the visual arts.” It will be exciting to see how she may weave traces of Lady in Green throughout her future works and experiments.
The poems portray themes of violence, rape, abortion, loneliness, race and racism, sexism and abuse. The frustration, righteous rage and insistence of the stories feel so poignant. As the U.S.A. reels from injustices denying access to global human rights including but not limited to the right to access abortion, which disproportionately impacts women and girls of color, this choreopoem punches the moment with urgency, humor, vulnerability, and a fierce demand of attention.
The work’s debut in the 1970s rocks waves with current political tides in the 2020s. In a recent article about the revival for Amsterdam News, Zita Allen writes, “After all, 1976 was a time when the air crackled with the electricity generated by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and the Women’s and LGBTQ movements were going strong. Chants of “Keep Your Laws Off My Body” filled the air. After all, Roe v Wade was only three years old. Ntozake’s choreopoem embodied those conversations on a global scale. [CUNY African American Literature Professor Dr. Brenda] Greene notes, “You have to look at how you engage people to force them to listen and I think since we’re dealing with so many of the same issues now as we were then, Camille A. Brown’s staging does a really good job of setting that out. I think if people could see it they could relate to it. ‘For colored girls’…is intergenerational because it tells those stories that, as women we only talk to each other about and…telling our stories is a way to heal. I think all women across races and across classes can appreciate that. Cause we’ve all been there.”
Towards the end of the play, the seven women come together for the finale ‘a laying on of hands’–healing them through their own sacredness. The symbol of the rainbow is revealed. In an article by Mark Ribowsky that appeared in Sepia magazine, Shange explains, “The rainbow is a fabulous symbol for me. If you see only one color, it’s not beautiful. If you see them all, it is. A colored girl, by my 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.”
but bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical
dilemma/ i havent conquered yet/ do you see the point
my spirit is too ancient to understand the separation of soul & gender/ my love is too delicate to have thrown back on my face
my love is too delicate to have thrown back on my face
my love is too beautiful to have thrown back on my face
my love is too sanctified to have thrown back on my face
my love is too magic to have thrown back on my face
my love is too saturday nite to have thrown back on my face
my love is too complicated to have thrown back on my face
my love is too music to have thrown back on my face
The show bestowed loving gifts: a feeling of expansiveness, power in vulnerability, and strength in solidarity. May the choreopoem continue to inspire and uplift generations with its innovative craft, catharsis and courage.
222 West 45th Street
A Shubert Organization Theatre
Robert E. Wankel, Chairman and CEO
Elliot Greene, Chief Operating Officer
Charles Flateman, Executive Vice President
Nelle Nugent, Ron Simons, Kenneath Teaton, Ellen Ferguson and Vivial Phillips, Willette and Manny Klausner, Hunter Arnold, Dale Franczen, Valencia Yearwood, Audible, Dennis Grimaldi, Terry Nardozzi and Tracey Knight Narang, Grace Nordhoof / Mickalene Thomas, Angelina Fiordellisi / Caiola Productions and The Public Theater – Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director; Patrick Willingham, Executive Director; Mandy Hacket, Director, Public Theater Directions present
for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf
by Ntozake Shange
Amara Granderson, Tendayi Kuumba, Kenita R. Miller, Okwui Okpokwasili, Stacey Sargeant, Alexandria Wailes, D. Woods
Scenic Design – Myung Hee Cho
Costume Design – Sarafina Bush
Lighting Design – Jiyoun Chang
Sound Design – Justin Ellington
Projection Design – Aaron Rhyne
Hair & Wig Design – Cookie Jordan
Original Music Orchestrations & Arrangements – Martha Redbone, Aaron Whitby
Drum Arrangements – Jaylen Petinaud
Music Director – Deah Love Harriot
Music Coordinator – Tia Allen
Director of Artistic Sign Language – Michelle Banks
Advertising and Marketing – Aka
Digital Marketing – Situation Interactive
Diversity Marketing – Realemn Productions
Press Representative – Polk & Co
Cultural Press – Cheryl Duncan and Company Inc.
Casting – Erica Jensen, Calleri Jensen Davis
Public Theater Casting – Heidi Griffiths, Kate Murray
Technical Supervisor – Hudson Theatrical Associates
Production Stage Manager – Bernita Robinson
General Manager – 101 Productions, LTD
Company Manager – Lizbeth Cone
Director-Public Theater – Leah C. Gardiner
Choreographer- Public Theater – Camille A. Brown
Directed and Choreographed by Camille A. Brown
‘for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf’ is presented through exclusive arrangement with The Ntozake Shange Trust. Originally produced at Woodie King Jr’s New Federal Theatre and the New York Shakespeare Festival/The Public Theater. The Producers wish to express their appreciation to the Theatre Development Fund for its support of this production.