Directed by Djanet Sears, the award-winning playwright and actor, the play is a reimagining of the original production which first graced the Broadway stage in 1976. Like many people, my first exposure to Shange’s work was through reading her “choreopoems” in a book and, more recently, Tyler Perry’s 2010 film adaptation with its ensemble cast of African-American actors, such as Janet Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Phylicia Rashad, and Thandie Newton to name a few. In this version, For Colored Girls pays close attention to Shange’s skillful fusion of words, music and dance while adding a fresh energy to themes that are just as relevant today as they were 40 years ago.
This is not the first time For Colored Girls has appeared in Toronto. In 1978, an off-Broadway production appeared at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, and in 1984, it was adapted and produced at the Toronto Workshop Theatre (no longer in operation, the site is now home to the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre). This time around, as a Soulpepper production, the theatre company that has made a name for itself by reinventing the works of playwrights from the past, For Colored Girls hits the right tone and will appease the sensibilities of today’s audiences.
Under Sears’ direction, and the brilliant choreography of Jasmyn Fyffe and Vivine Scarlett, For Colored Girls follows seven unnamed black women whose unique story is embodied through the colour of their dresses. There is the lady in brown (performed by Tamara Brown), lady in yellow (performed by Karen Glave), lady in purple (performed by Ordena Stephens-Thompson), lady in red (performed by d’bi young anitafrika), lady in green (performed by Akosua Amo-Adem), lady in blue (performed by SATE), and lady in orange (performed by Evangelia Kambites). While the play is about individual black women, the collective black woman experience comes to life with each ensemble dance sequence.
One after another, each lady tells us where she comes from, what she knows, and what we, as the audience, will soon find out about the collective “colored girl.” This play speaks to the duality of multiple states of being – the movement in and out of love and loss; pain and sorrow; violence and pleasure; bliss and heartache; life and death.
The vibrancy of each lady’s dress, their bodies moving in synchronicity with one another and the syncopating rhythms of not only their voices in song but also their movement across the stage itself is visually stunning. Even though you’re watching a theatrical performance, in these moments it does not feel like one. Instead, you enter the life of each lady, and with each poem and dance, you are better able to see through (and into) their eyes.
The dialogue in For Colored Girls is also memorable, and will linger for days, maybe even months, after you see the production. For example, when SATE, as the lady in blue, recounts, “I used to live in the world now my universe is six blocks; I live in Harlem,” the reality of her world hits you. What would it mean to live in a place that feels like a box? How would you dream of becoming something more when your physical surrounding limits your ability to dream in the first place?
Importantly, the play is not all doom and gloom. It has the right balance of tears and jokes to keep you entertained.
When Glave, as the lady in yellow, arouses the audience by recounting “graduation night” and the loss of her virginity for which she “could not stop smiling” the day after, you will chuckle. In “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff,” Amo-Adem, as the lady in green, hits the mark with what can only be described as 10-minutes of hilarious one-liners presented with full-on black girl attitude. Finally, when Brown, as the lady in brown, recalls the moment in her childhood when she fell in love with Toussaint L’Ouverture, the eighteenth-century leader of the Haitian Revolution, it will take you back to your first black male revolutionary crush (Malcolm X was this person for me).
Each and every one of the actors in For Colored Girls is outstanding but honorable mention must be given to renowned Jamaican-Canadian dub poet, playwright, and actor d’bi young anitafrika, and Ordena Stephens-Thompson, who is most remembered for her ground-breaking work in Trey Anthony’s ‘Da Kink in my Hair. As the lady in red and lady in purple respectively, their poems provide some of the most heartfelt moments in the play.
While For Colored Girls has been criticized for its negative depiction of black men in that they are absent (literally) in each of the lady’s lives but present (figuratively) as the root cause of their emotional, financial, and physical pain, to focus on this is to miss the relevancy of Shange’s original work, and the reason For Colored Girls is still resonating with audiences today. This is not a story about black men; this is a story about (and of) black women, of colored girls’ experiences and it is through their voices we are asked to see, hear and feel what they see, hear and feel. This is a voice that also remains underrepresented in Canadian theatre.
The only unfulfilled aspect of For Colored Girls is its finale. When lady in red embraces the fact that she found God in herself and in doing so, finally knows how to love Her (not Him), those words linger like smoke from a blown-out candle but shortly thereafter, the 95-minute play comes to an abrupt end. This finale is gripping, shocking and for some traumatizing, so it would have been powerful to allow it to linger for just a bit longer.
Ultimately, this play still speaks to the complexity of being both black and a woman. If you’ve seen it before, you will be just as enamored by this adaptation as you were by the others before it, and if this is your first time, enjoy the ride but be prepared for many twists and turns along the way.