Ntozake Shange’s iridescent choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf” is the story of Black women and their often-disregarded human experiences. Whereas the stereotyped characterization of the strong Black woman creates a façade that she is incapable of experiencing trauma, Shange’s delicate marriage of dance, music and monologues gives Black women the stage to be unapologetically human and vulnerable — to be seen in all their complicated glory.
“For Colored Girls…” first played Broadway in 1976 following a successful run at the Public Theater. Now this new revival of Shange’s masterwork returns to the same theater after another critically acclaimed production played the Public in 2019. With Tony Award nominee Camille A. Brown (“Choir Boy”) now serving as both director and choreographer (the first Black woman to do so on Broadway in 65 years), the production is stripped of the design frills seen at The Public. There are no mirrored walls, sitting pillows or dangling disco ball; instead the design clears the space for authentic storytelling solely through vibrant colors and fluid movement. With these choices, Brown and her design team skillfully command the audience to engage solely with the women on stage and their stories.
Throughout the production, themes of visibility filter through every enunciated breath and rhythmic melody. With the ladies’ natural crowns beautified with box braids, locs and shaped afros, the impressive ensemble of seven performers seamlessly works in tandem to create a kaleidoscope of dazzling Black femininity, making it impossible to look away. Every woman here has a story, a complication or an awakening deserving of an ear. Or several.
D. Woods, a former member of Sean “Diddy” Combs’ girl group Danity Kane, makes her Broadway debut as the impenitent Lady in Yellow. She babbles on with sass about her first-time sexcapades in the “back seat of a Buick” and her audacious early entry into Black womanhood. Tendayi Kuumba’s flawless Lady in Brown, meanwhile, is a cultured romantic. She saunters across the stage as if walking on clouds when professing her love for Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Black man who lead the successful slave revolt in Haiti.
Most haunting of all is Kenita R. Miller’s harrowing rendition of the Lady in Red’s monologue, “a night with beau willie brown.” Four wide screened panels, part of Myung Hee Cho’s spare set design, transition from hues of red and purples to midnight black. In this bare space, one single, hazy spotlight thrusts Miller center stage. What this actor does with this poem about one woman’s fight to save her children — as Miller, pregnant in real life, is preparing for the birth of her own child — is otherworldly.
The only disappointing directorial choice is the presentation of Okwui Okpokwasili’s Lady in Green, Juanita. The character’s monologue, “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff,” becomes a comedic stand-up bit, far removed from how the text was reverently presented by Okpokwasili at the Public. The audience is moved to laugh in response to lines filled with despair. In this moment, Juanita simultaneously questions her power as a woman while also reclaiming it back from her inconsistent lover. This moment is specifically written as a time of understanding and reassurance, not one of flippant amusement.
Still, Shange’s work remains as riveting as it was in 1976. Her words have become more than the unspoken and unrealized accounts of Black women’s pain and promise; they have evolved into the gift of permission to heal and the agency to be seen and understood. It has become a memo to Black women to embrace their femaleness (no matter what that looks like) while looking to the rainbow as a sign of hope for the future of the collective, because they alone are enough.