NEW YORK – “For Colored Girls Who Have Thought of Suicide / When the Rainbow Appears” Ntozake Shange, opening at the Booth Theater on September 15, 1976, challenged the Broadway Conventions. The experimental “choreopoem” dedicated to the lives of seven women of color, each named after the colors of the rainbow, was a revelation and not something you might expect to find on a major Broadway stage.
“At the time, black actresses were still coming out of the stereotypes of people looking at us and judging us,” said Trezana Beverly, who received Tony for her role as Lady in Red, during a recent Zoom interview. “Zake broke all those rules and we broke them with her. We really were the colors of the rainbow – that was what was so exciting about it. “
Monologues, which detail loss, betrayal, violence and love, are narrated poetically and combined with movement and music. Gentle touches, soft hugs or impromptu dances comfort women with each other as a support team.
“Ntozake had an unusual way of mixing prose with poetry – the rhythms of her words and, of course, the incredible imagination she had in her story,” Beverly said.
The play went on Broadway for almost two years, closing in July 1978 after 742 performances (“Godspell”, which opened in June 1976, reached only 527). It immediately became a classic and continues to inspire new generations of playwrights, including Alyosha Harris and Dominic Mariso.
To fully appreciate Shanja’s work and what it means to bring her back to Broadway this spring (in a production directed by dancer and choreographer Camille A. Brown), it helps to explore the historical and cultural context that led to his original Broadway production in 1976. .
From poems to playsShange began developing the song “For Colored Girls” in 1974, while living in the Bay Area, and performed it with dancer Paula Moss at a bar called Bacchanal.
“Every time she read her poems, as she did many years ago at the Nuerican Cafe, she always had a musical accompaniment,” Beverly recalls. “She always had a saxophonist, a flutist or a cellist, and she moved with her poems. There is a line in her poem, she says, “Music was like a delicacy to me,” and you knew it. “
She found inspiration in the Renaissance of Black Writers, which began to unfold around the time she graduated from Barnard College. In works such as Tony Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grunge Copeland, both published in 1970, the writers explored specific ways black women fight racial and gender-based violence.
And Shang had its own internal struggle. Her student journals show she “tried to commit suicide,” said Kim F. Hall, English professor Lucille Hook and professor of African studies at Barnard. “Go back to some of the first interviews. She speaks about it very openly, ”she said, adding that the title of the play is not“ abstraction ”.
All of this fed her poetry, and after spending several years on the West Coast in graduate school, she returned to New York and began to turn her poems into plays. And then Ifa Baeza, Shange’s sister, introduced her to director Oz Scott.
“I’ve been a director since the beginning,” said 72-year-old Scott. “We did it at DeMonte’s, the bar on the Lower East Side where we started it, and then we went to Henry Street (the house of the New Federal Theater), then we went to Public, and then we went to Broadway.”
Opening at the New Federal TheaterBefore the show was able to move to Midtown from downtown, the producers had to invest in new experimental work. It’s not that there have been a lot of plays by black women with an all-black female ensemble who have continued to perform on Broadway.
That’s when Woody King Jr., the founder of the New Federal Theater, came to see “For Colored Girls” at the bar. He was immediately dragged to work. And he was especially attracted to the poem “I’m sorry,” Scott recalled. (“Sorry” details the many excuses women have heard from lovers to justify abuse.)
“I gave it to Lori Carlos (one of the original participants in the show) the night before,” Scott explained. “I said, ‘I need this verse in this place.’ Here is a poem, remember for tomorrow. And she looked at me and said, “Oz, are you crazy? I can’t. “
“I said,‘ Lori, don’t worry. Just remember, ”Scott recalled. “And so we got to this place, and she just walked into it, and Woody King was sitting there, and she was just looking at Woody, and she gave Woody the whole poem, and she was perfect.”
It was as if King was a “forgiving” lover, sitting there and absorbing women’s stories. “What prompted me to bring him to the New Federal Theater,” King, now 84, recalled, “is that the women in it were very beautiful and very Afrocentric.”
The cast continued to rehearse and eventually performed before Joseph Pope, director of the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater.
“I worked for Joe Papp,” Scott said. “I directed the stage of Miguel Pinero’s play‘ The Sun Always Shines Cool ’, and around 7am when we finished rehearsal, I just kicked everyone out and introduced the colored girls to the public theater and we rehearsed there. Someone told me Joe knew. And I said, “Joe doesn’t know.” Joe knew. “
They showed Pope work in a small space that the Pope turned into a movie theater, Scott said. There was Gail, Papp’s wife, and she cried. “She said, ‘You have to do this, Joe,'” Scott said. “And so Joe said, ‘Okay, we’re just going to do it in this little movie theater for 40-50 seats.’ ”
“I said, ‘You give me a theater, I’ll fill a seat.’ So Joe teamed up with Woody and we did it on Henry Street, ”Scott said.
In an introduction to the 2010 version of For Colored Girls, Shang described the opening night on Henry Street as “divine” with “prayers flocking from everywhere.”
Beverly noted that “In the New Federal Theater we were like in a church. The sisters fell out in the aisle, they were so energetic and charged. ”
After the show, Beverly said, “We saw my sister in the shadows, and she followed us down the street, and then she said, ‘Can I tell you something?’ And would say thank you. Thank you for telling my story. “
“You see,” she continued, “it’s one of the big influences the show has had because it told the story of the Black Woman. She said how it was. “
Opening in publicWith the transition from Henry Street to an audience, audiences shifted from predominantly black to predominantly white, and this continued when the production moved to the Booth Theater. Even with the increasing size of theaters, the work retained its intimacy through poetry, dance and music.
On June 2, 1976, the opening night of the Anspacher Public Theater, the play was sold out. “Joe Pap said, ‘I want you to invite all your friends,'” Scott recalls. “And I said, ‘Joe, the show is sold out.’ ”
“He said, ‘Oz, tell your actors to invite all their friends,'” Scott said. “So all our friends were in the Anspacher lobby. And when the place was filled. Joe said, “Okay, bring all your friends, let them sit on the stairs.” “King was one of many who filled the ladder.
“They were sitting ahead on stage. There was no place. And I said, “Joe, what about the fire marshal.” He said: “Oz, the show lasts 15 hours. If the fire marshal comes here, the performance will end. ” ”
“It was an absolutely brilliant move,” Scott added, “because the energy in this room – you had the critics, they were all locked in this room, everyone was locked in this room. It was a magnetic night. “
When moving to Broadway the cast was expanded to include backups. “I was brought in for an audition to replace Zake,” said 72-year-old Serret Scott, a former Broadway member, in a telephone interview. (Shanj also starred in the play as Lady in Orange.)
From the opening night on Broadway, the actors knew they had a hit. “You could hear ‘Oh!’ Or ‘Mmm,’ or someone who suddenly cried because it was too close,” said Seret Scott. “The comments could be heard. So we knew we were hugged.” .
Heritage showPhysical movement controls the “choreography”. Instead of completing the play, Shang’s creativity should unfold through dance and change in verse. Donald Satan, the literary trustee of the Shang estate, said: “Ntozake considered herself a dancer who supported herself as a professional writer.”
He continued: “Harepaem is driven by poetry, but poetry is danced, and poetry is accompanied by sound and music. It is very difficult to combine all three of these elements. “
As for the revival of Broadway, he added: “Choreographer Camille and directing experience give her the opportunity to realize a choreography.”
For the 2022 production, which previews begins April 1 and opens April 20, Brown debuts as a director on Broadway; she also choreographs the show. (Brown previously choreographed the public revival “For Colored Girls” in 2019, directed by Leah S. Gardiner.)
The show “gives me space to really immerse myself in what I’m doing, and that’s choreography, but also the body story,” Brown said in a phone interview.
Performing his dual role, Brown will draw from his own work, in particular “The Black Girl: A Linguistic Game” and “Ink” to find physical language for black girls and women to express their stories. “One of the lines in the piece says,‘ Sing the Black Girl’s Song, ’and that’s what it’s about,” Brown said. “What is a song for each of us – this anthem, the macro anthem to which we all respond, but individually, which speaks to us personally?”
Although Brown said she is committed to providing a treatment space for colored women, she said she also plans to build on that legacy. “I think it’s easy for you to fall into the trap that this show needs to be made,” Brown said. “We need to get into these markers. They have to say it this way, we have to make sure it happens. I had to get out of it. I was talking to a friend and she said, “This is a proposal.” That will be my suggestion. “