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‘For Colored Girls’ Continues To Be Black Women’s North Star

‘For Colored Girls’ Continues To Be Black Women’s North Star

It doesn’t take very long into a performance of director Camille Brown’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf” for you to realize it is an entirely singular experience among Broadway shows right now.

Maybe it’s the way seven — seven! — Black and brown female characters, each representing the complexity of hues within an identity, stand in their truths and share tales of heartbreak and desire, loss and joy. Maybe it’s because each actor manages to reveal a little something about herself through the process of interpreting Ntozake Shange’s seminal 1976 choreopoem.

Or maybe it’s the way you hear Black women in the audience spontaneously snap their fingers in agreement, stand up and shout “Beautiful!” with applause, or utter a simple “Mmm!” when a character says something that resonates with them.

Kuumba as Lady in Brown in “For Colored Girls.”

Credit: Marc J. Franklin, 2022

Take, for instance, the renowned “Toussaint” monologue from Lady in Brown (Tendayi Kuumba) that expresses the hope and sustenance an 8-year-old Black girl finds through reading about the Haitian Revolution leader Toussaint Louverture.

“I mean, we love it,” Kuumba told HuffPost about the audience’s live response to the material. “Because this work is so historical, you can literally hear women in the audience saying the words with you, which can be a beautiful thing. Like, ‘Yes, we’re here.’”

But this also presents “a beautiful challenge,” Kuumba adds, because the soliloquy helped her want to tap back into herself as a little girl. So she enjoys processing it on her own each night. “Like, wait, I want to try to find my way with it,” the actor said with a smile.

From left: Stacey Sargeant, Granderson, Okpokwasili, Kuumba, Miller, Woods and Wailes.
From left: Stacey Sargeant, Granderson, Okpokwasili, Kuumba, Miller, Woods and Wailes.

Credit: Marc J. Franklin, 2022

The audience’s engagement is akin to catching the spirit, as they say in the Black church, because they can barely hold it in. That’s on account of the specificity of Shange’s words reverberating across the walls of the Booth Theatre and off the colorful, large-scaled photos of each of the actors, in character, projected on stage.

Add to that the way the performers leap, dance and sashay across the stage with no thought of who’s watching, seducing the audience while affirming themselves in their own bodies.

All of this yields a sense of communion that’s inherent in the tangible sisterhood among the performers, who have their own childhood connections to the words. Often throughout our conversations, the actors would quote a poem from another role in the show, because sometimes it’s so intertwined with her youth or how she’s feeling today.

The timelessness of the text couldn’t be more evident as it ponders things like what it means to be Black amid a constant white threat, a Blackness unbound by era, language and location, or a woman reclaiming herself after a man takes the best of her.

Okpokwasili as Lady in Green in "For Colored Girls."
Okpokwasili as Lady in Green in “For Colored Girls.”

Credit: Marc J. Franklin, 2022

“honest to god/ somebody almost run off wit alla my stuff/ & i didnt bring anythin but the kick & sway of it/ the perfect ass for my man & none of it is theirs/ this is mine/ ntozake ‘her own things’/ that’s my name/ now give me my stuff.”

As Lady in Green, Okwui Okpokwasili imbues these words from Shange’s beloved “My Stuff” monologue with new life. The Nigerian-born actor recalls discovering “For Colored Girls” at age 15 while growing up in the Bronx, New York, and searching to hear the voices of Black girls. She finally found them when she picked up the book.

“I don’t know if I understood the ‘Stuff’ monologue at 15,” Okpokwasili admitted. “That’s the first time I learned about Toussaint. That’s the first time I heard the word assiduously’: I have loved you assiduously.”

Over the years, “For Colored Girls” has continued to bolster her curiosity, her sense of self and her resilience.

“It’s like I was given something that I could continually return to, and it would just keep opening up and then unfolding and unfolding again,” Okpokwasili said. “Every time I go up and do it right now, it does feel like my 15-year-old self is right with me.”

That tender relationship to the poems is shared by every cast member. They’re all quick to tell you stories about how they first came upon “For Colored Girls” through a high school performance, in college or when they found themselves arrested merely by the book cover as a child.

Left to right: Okpokwasili, Woods, Kuumba, Granderson, Sargeant, Miller and Wailes in "For Colored Girls."
Left to right: Okpokwasili, Woods, Kuumba, Granderson, Sargeant, Miller and Wailes in “For Colored Girls.”

Credit: Marc J. Franklin, 2022

“I was like, ’This is a beautiful visual,’” recalled Amara Granderson, who plays Lady in Orange. She encountered the 1976 poster of “For Colored Girls” hanging on the wall of her mother’s co-worker’s cubicle when she was 8 years old.

“Ntozake looking pensive yet still,” Granderson continued. “I was just really thrown by what I was seeing. The font is colorful and script and watercolor, and the words ‘colored’ and ‘suicide’ are in it. I’m like, ’Whew, I don’t understand.’ I was stressed out by it as I was at ease with it.”

These common experiences helped create an immediate camaraderie among the actors, who each come with impressive theatrical, music and dance backgrounds. Some are reprising their roles from the 2019 production of “For Colored Girls” at New York’s Public Theater.

Kuumba, who joined the Broadway show fresh off her role in “American Utopia,” recalls the comfort she felt moments after meeting some of the other women.

“Me, Stacey Sargeant [Lady in Blue] and Kenita Miller [Lady in Red] were also in the audition together, and I remember Stacey and I had a little kiki in the bathroom after,” Kuumba laughed. “So, it was inevitable in so many ways, the connections.”

Left to right: Kuumba, Miller, Okpokwasili, Granderson, Wailes, Sargeant and Woods in "For Colored Girls."
Left to right: Kuumba, Miller, Okpokwasili, Granderson, Wailes, Sargeant and Woods in “For Colored Girls.”

Credit: Marc J. Franklin, 2022

It makes it easy to fall into a sistergirl shorthand, which helps authenticate the characters as well as Shange’s words, which unapologetically employ African American Vernacular English as its own love language.

That, in addition to Brown’s ability as director and choreographer to create a safe space for the cast to bring their full selves to their roles, makes “For Colored Girls” so exceptional.

Because there are no rules, no judgment — just unfiltered truth.

This kind of space has always been necessary for Black women and girls, but that’s especially the case now, as a pandemic rages on and we retreat deeper into isolation. You don’t realize how vital that connection is until it falls out of reach.

That was the case for Miller, who’s been performing the role of Lady in Red in her final trimester of pregnancy. She turned to therapy at the height of quarantine as a way to process these feelings of detachment.

Woods, Kuumba and Miller in "For Colored Girls."
Woods, Kuumba and Miller in “For Colored Girls.”

Credit: Marc J. Franklin, 2022

When the opportunity to join “For Colored Girls” came along, Miller said it was like the universe had responded to what she was craving. She cites the “A Laying on of Hands” moment toward the end of the show, when each character puts a hand on Lady in Red’s baby bump in beautiful solidarity.

“It’s like, ‘Yes, they’re feeding me love, protection, support as sisters,’” Miller explained. She gets emotional — “I’m hormonal!” — as she thinks about the intimacy she’s gained from this experience that has helped her humanize the painful truths in her character’s journey and expose some of her own vulnerabilities.

That especially resonates when the actor details Lady in Red’s tragic “Beau Willie Brown” story, about her relationship with an abusive and mentally ill man who killed their children.

“I know I wouldn’t be able to do that ‘Beau Willie’ if there was not the ‘Laying On of Hands,’” Miller said. “And if the last line that Camille so generously and thoughtfully gave us as a mantra to repeat — ‘I found God in myself and I loved her. I loved her fiercely.’”

Miller pauses before adding: “I think that exchange is really, really beautiful, but I don’t think it’s just for Lady in Red. I think it ends up being all of us.”

Woods, Wailes and Kuumba in "For Colored Girls."
Woods, Wailes and Kuumba in “For Colored Girls.”

Credit: Marc J. Franklin, 2022

That includes Lady in Purple, played by Alexandria Wailes, an accomplished theatrical performer who uses American Sign Language. As a deaf actor, Wailes worked with Brown and Michelle Banks, the show’s director of artistic sign language, to create Lady in Purple’s textual expression of the poems in addition to her physical language as a dancer. (The Booth Theatre provides GalaPro, a program that makes each performance accessible for ASL users and those who are deaf or hard of hearing.)

Lady in Purple, who Wailes describes as an observer, primarily communicates through signs that bring the audience into both the character and the performer’s truth. But when Lady in Red recounts the devastation of losing her family, she speaks a few words in compassion.

For Wailes, that’s her personal choice. “I, as Alexandria, live in a world where I’m from a hearing family and I have worked with a great many hearing people,” Wailes said through an interpreter. “I have so many very close deaf friends. So, my world is a place where I’m constantly maneuvering back and forth between communication styles. What I’m basically doing is code-switching, because that’s who I am as a person.”

Left to right: Okpokwasili, Kuumba, Woods, Miller, Sargeant, Granderson and Wailes in "For Colored Girls."
Left to right: Okpokwasili, Kuumba, Woods, Miller, Sargeant, Granderson and Wailes in “For Colored Girls.”

Credit: Marc J. Franklin, 2022

Within that truth, Wailes sees a moment as Lady in Red is processing her tragedy to extend her hand. “It made sense to me to speak as a way of meeting her halfway, as a way of saying, ‘I see you,’ and offering that to her,” she said. “It reflects my experience. Using my voice to speak is a tool, a way of survival, and one that I use in order to connect and engage with people.”

Just as code-switching is a valid part of both Wailes’ and Lady in Purple’s truths ― and the truths of all Black and brown women ― so is signing to express their deepest emotions. For the character, Wailes illuminates the story of a biracial dancer named Sechita who has the power to seduce men ― until she finds herself in a situation with a man entangled with three women.

It’s a moment of disappointment in Lady in Purple’s story, though Wailes performs it so playfully and warmly that you can’t help but laugh at the irony of a woman who thought she had the upper hand. As Lady in Purple communicates this story, from the poem “Pyramid,” Lady in Orange orally expresses it, which reads as a sign of her own empathy.

It was important for Granderson, Wailes and Brown to make it so that Lady in Orange isn’t actually translating for Lady in Purple. In fact, Lady in Orange’s speech is not in sync with Lady in Purple’s signs. Rather, Lady in Orange serves as just another voice with Lady in Purple.

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“It was finding that line of being in flow with each other, but not needing to hit every single beat at the same time,” Granderson explained, taking into account the music at this point in the show as well as Lady in Purple’s signs and her dance. “It’s more of, what is the journey of Sechita in this piece? How does her language flow?”

Left to right: Miller, Granderson, Sargeant and Kuumba.
Left to right: Miller, Granderson, Sargeant and Kuumba.

Credit: Marc J. Franklin, 2022

A similar support is given to Lady in Blue, who begins the show proudly declaring herself unlimited to the English language as well as her native Harlem.

Later in her story, she reveals that she’s had an abortion due to a rape, and had to go through with it alone. The shame of abortion, a reality still devastatingly relevant, meant that she has to keep it secret. “Nobody knew,” Lady in Blue says in agony.

Just thinking about this moment from her character’s journey makes Sargeant sigh. “It was just about the truth of that experience,” she said. “It feels to me that this woman is defending her choice in that moment, and here we are with reproductive rights hanging in the balance.”

It’s just another example, she said, of the enduring importance of “For Colored Girls” nearly 50 years after its premiere.

Even the concept of self-love, so emphatically displayed throughout the show, remains too often merely aspirational today. We still rely on external elements — romantic relationships, society, our jobs, social media — when we really need to look inward. Shange’s words underscore that.

“It’s a healing,” Sargeant said. “There’s a shedding of shame. I think that is the thing that I get from coming together at the end. We lay hands on each other, we’re infusing each other with that love. Then we infuse ourselves with it.”

Left to right: Kuumba, Woods, Miller and Wailes.
Left to right: Kuumba, Woods, Miller and Wailes.

Credit: Marc J. Franklin, 2022

It’s a full-circle moment from the beginning of the show, when Lady in Yellow (D. Woods) glides downstage to tell the audience about how she planned to lose her virginity in the backseat of a car on graduation night.

Knowing the audience is fully in step with her, Woods, who rose to fame as a member of the pop group Danity Kane, starts shaking her hips to show how Lady in Yellow was about to drop it like it’s hot with her crew that night.

“i waz the only virgin/ so i hadda make like my hips waz inta some business,” Lady in Yellow says as the audience laughs.

“It’s very playful and I’m looking at people, and I’m talking to you all like y’all are my friends,” Woods said. “I’m sharing this little juicy secret. The laughter, of course, makes you want to ham it up a little bit more sometimes.”

It’s also a beat of genuine levity and self-celebration for which “For Colored Girls” isn’t always known. But it is just as joyful and fun as it is bittersweet and aching, because it goes through the spectrum of experiences Black women and girls have.

Woods in "For Colored Girls."
Woods in “For Colored Girls.”

Credit: Marc J. Franklin, 2022

Woods especially cherishes this, as it’s all too rare that Black women get to show the full complexity of their humanity on stage. “Let’s go through all the feelings and celebrate when I want to be a brat, when I want to be strong and righteous, when I want to be ratchet and when I want to be sophisticated,” she said. “Because we have all of those colors.”

Building a space for her actors to be as free and vulnerable as the characters they play, Brown did roundtables with the performers to talk through different points in the show as a unit in order to make each beat feel as sincere as the next.

So if you wonder why Lady in Yellow grooves to SWV’s “I’m So Into You” instead of Martha and the Vandellas as specified in the original text, it’s because that’s what felt true to both Woods and Brown. “I was like, ‘Oh, I like that song too!’” Woods recalled ecstatically.

There are not enough words to articulate why this production of “For Colored Girls” is so valuable, or to describe why its seven Tony nominations — including two for Brown and one for Miller — matter so much. As Woods said, “You had to just be there.”

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