Book and Movie Review: for colored girls (In Memory of Ntozake Shange)

A few months ago I watched Tyler Perry’s film adaptation of the choreopoem and play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by the late dancer and writer Ntozake Shange. I have been meaning to write a blog post after seeing the movie because it just possessed so much raw energy for me, and also Ntozake Shange passed away this past October, so I wanted to dedicate this very belated post to her legacy. Disclaimer: the jumbled words on this page will never do justice to her life and her writing.

The film version is about a group of black women living in New York who each have a different story, and they support each other through their shared struggles. The film, I must, say, is a lot easier to appreciate if you read the choreopoem beforehand, and while I thought the film was incredibly moving, I read the poem after and definitely appreciate it more. The film is not an easy watch; the struggles these women endure domestic violence, date rape, PTSD, depression, abortion and drug addiction, struggles that make them spiral deep into depression. Through it all, though, they support one another through and through, and it was enough to have me sniffling like a whiny little crybaby afterwards (I swear, I was a snotty-faced cry-baby towards the end of this film. I couldn’t stop crying after I went to bed.). This film is deeply engrained in my memory, not just because of the incredible cast, but because of their intense battles to survive in a world where their husbands, boyfriends and society treats them like they are worthless and cannot see their beauty. Historically, mental health has a stigma in American culture, particularly in communities of color, and black women have often been portrayed as possessing this super human strength and not giving in to crying because people often see crying as a form of weakness. However, tears are human, and this film and play shows that the “black female” experience doesn’t exist in a monolith, and to pigeonhole all black women’s struggles would mean obscuring all the complex human emotions these black women feel when they have to endure so much pain in their lives. And this film shows that yes, if you’ve gone through a lot of stuff, you’d better be okay with crying it out and not feeling like you have to be silent about your pain, because crying is what makes us human.

The movie was excellent, and it makes me wish I had read the play before seeing it in order to better appreciate the legacy Shange left behind, especially because it gave background information about Shange’s inspiration for her choreopoem. During the 1970s, Shange collaborated with various other women in California who were musicians, publishers, writers and academics. Shange said that her exposure to female writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and taking courses in the Women’s Studies program at Sonoma State College provided her inspiration for her writings about women. She then moved back to San Francisco to study dance, and discovered that dance was an outlet for her to freely express herself as a black woman.

Knowing a woman’s mind & spirit had been allowed me, with dance I discovered my body more intimately than I had imagined possible. With the acceptance of the ethnicity of my thighs & backside, came a clearer understanding of my voice as a woman & as a poet. The freedom to move in space, to demand of my own sweat a perfection that could continually be approached, though never known, waz poem to me, my body & mind ellipsing, probably for the first time in my life…I moved what waz my unconscious knowledge of being in a colored woman’s body to my known everydayness.

Shange p. xi

Shange joined a troupe of black female dancers called The Spirit of Dance and also worked in the public schools as an adjunct professor in the Ethnic Studies program, and after several performances with the troupe, she left the company to begin production of for colored girls. She began the play as a series of seven poems. The seven black women who would each tell their stories in these poems did not have names because Shange wanted the viewer to focus on the narratives rather than the names of the characters (the colors of their dresses represent their characters). Shange and her choreography partner Paula Moss staged the play in various spaces in the San Francisco area: the Women’s Studies’ departments, bars, cafes, and poetry centers. Many people came to see the play in its early performances, but when Moss and Shange moved to New York to take for colored girls to the stage there, only their friends and family came for the showings. One of these friends was Oz Scott, who helped Shange and Moss stage the production for a New York audience, and as time went on, Shange also recruited more poets and dancers who were interested in the production. In December of 1975, when they put for colored girls on at a bar called DeMonte’s, Shange had let Scott take over the directing of the play, and when she did this, she let her creation grow on its own, and said that “as opposed to viewing the pieces as poems, I came to understand these twenty-odd poems as a single statement, a choreopoem” (Shange xiv). She also learned the importance of putting those poems on a stage instead of just writing it in a book (“those institutions I had shunned as a poet-producers, theaters, actresses, & sets–now were essential to us”, Shange xiv).

Honestly, reading this entire foreword to the play has not just helped me appreciate Shange’s for colored girls, but also the performing arts as a whole. Dance is such an important avenue for our bodies to express themselves, and works well with other mediums of performing art, such as music and theatre. For black women, dance is especially powerful because it allows for that freedom of expression that American society didn’t always allow for black women. Misty Copeland, for instance, made history as a black ballerina in predominantly-white spaces, but she had to struggle hard to access these spaces since she grew up without racial or class privilege that her fellow ballerinas benefited from. Even when she struggled with body image issues, she learned to accept her curves and not try to fit into mainstream stereotypes of ballerinas. The Alvin Ailey Dance Theater is another prominent example; a few years ago, I was doing a paper on dance for a philosophy course, and I used this performance that the theater put on for Ailey’s work “Revelations”. The performance is not only incredibly lovely, but it also conveys the importance of dance for black artists like Shange. The dancers in “Revelations” own the entire space onstage, so they have the freedom to move however much they want. The video goes back to African-American music traditions, namely gospel and blues, using traditional songs such as “Wade in the Water”. Seriously, even though I have watched this video more than once, it still moves me to see these beautiful artists carve out this space for their own, where they can celebrate the beauty of being African-American.

If you haven’t seen for colored girls yet, I recommend it, but I also recommend you read the choreopoem first if you can score a copy of it. I was better able to contextualize the movie when I read the play afterwards. And here is the trailer for for colored girls. I still get chills every time I watch it. Rest in Peace, Ntozake Shange and may your powerful legacy live on in the lives of young women and young black women everywhere.

for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf: a choreopoem by Ntozake Shange. 64 pp.

For Colored Girls. 2010. Rated R for some disturbing violence including a rape, sexual content and language.

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