After more than three decades since its Broadway debut, followed by countless revivals nationwide, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf is getting the big screen Hollywood treatment, courtesy of Tyler Perry.
Shange first presented the show at the Bacchanal, a woman’s bar outside of Berkley, California in December of 1974. It was a time when the San Francisco scene was ripe with female artists and poets, both black and white, expressing their definitions of womanhood through the arts, and Ntozake was at the forefront.
The piece began, Shange has said, as a series of poems modeled after feminist poet Judy Grahan’s The Common Woman, with the goal of delving into the reality of seven different types of women, “They were numbered pieces: the women were to be nameless and assume hegemony as dictated by the fullness of their lives,” wrote Shange. She brought colored girls from venue to venue and tweaked the poetry, the dances, and the music based on her mood and the mood of the audience, and it became quite a sensation; a battle cry for of both the women’s liberation and black pride movements of the mid-seventies.
By the time For Colored Girls hit New York, it had been performed on several smaller stages including Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, before arriving at Broadway’s Booth Theater in September of 1976, where it became a critically acclaimed success and was nominated for a Tony award for best play.
Through twenty poems, Shange’s For Colored Girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf gave voices to women whom we don’t usually hear from, and her verbal acrobatics soared and sang as they moved across the pages.
Over thirty years later, they still do because the poems cover the gamut of the lives of black women. There is a bit of us in each of the characters as they struggle with concepts of identity, self love, self respect and self preservation. The poems depict heavy issues such date rape, abortion, betrayal, and other brutalities, but they also celebrate the delight of a first sexual encounter, the joy of a child sneaking into the adult reading room at the library and discovering Toussaint L’Ouverture, of dancing to Willie Colon, and the bliss of finally accepting yourself. They play is a celebration of black womanhood, with all the blood, sweat and tears.
”…sing a black girl’s song
Bring her out
To know yourself
To know you
But sing her rhythms
Sing her song of life…”
Yes, sing her song of life. Enter Tyler Perry, actor, playwright, producer, and all around media mogul, whose career was launched with “chitlin’ circuit” theater. What would he do with this iconic bible of African-American sisterhood? Who would dare touch it? This is not merely the adaptation of a book to film, which presents challenges of its own; this is a choreopoem, with beats and cadences that don’t always translate smoothly into a standard script. But Perry has taken great care in respecting the poetry and most of the time, the language does work. It also helps that he has assembled an all-star cast.
Janet Jackson plays Joanna, a Devil Wears Prada-style magazine editor with a husband full of secrets; Whoopi Goldberg portrays Alice, a religious fanatic with two daughters played by Thandie Newton, taking on the role of the Tangie, a beautiful woman who uses her sexuality as a weapon; and Tessa Thompson, who plays Nyla, a good girl who slips up. Kerry Washington portrays Kelly, a social worker whose momentary neglect of a case ends horribly; Anika Noni Rose is Yasmine, a dance teacher who puts her trust in the wrong man; Kimberly Elise plays a battered woman, trying to hold it all together on the outside as her life spins out violently out of control; Phylicia Rashād plays the tough but nurturing Gilda, and Loretta Devine is Juanita, the character who finally gets up enough courage and self respect to makes sure no man walks away with all of her “stuff.”
Singer and occasional actress Macy Gray turns in a chilling supporting performance, as do Michael Ealy and Khalil Kain. There are also solid performances by Omari Hardwick, as Jackson’s shady husband and Hill Harper, who plays the films only upstanding guy. (Men, do not expect your egos to get stroked here; it’s just not that kind of party.)
For Colored Girls is the first time Perry has adapted another playwright’s work and in fact, this film doesn’t look or feel like any of his past work. It definitely has more artistic gravitas than his previous films, save Precious which he co-produced with Oprah Winfrey. The film deals with many thorny and painful issues, and in his favor here is the fact that Perry is no stranger to pain. By now everyone has heard of his abusive childhood and how he used words as a way to heal; this healing process comes across in his direction. He is also very well connected to his female audience and this gives him a great advantage when conveying some of the key messages in Shange’s work.
This is what works. Perry extracts some breathtakingly brilliant performances from his actors, in particular Anika Noni Rose, Kimberly Elise, and newcomer Tessa Thompson. Loretta Devine is a force of nature and Goldberg, Newton, Jackson (whose voice sounds so eerily like her brother Michael’s at times),and Rashād more than hold their own in this ensemble piece. Perry draws the best out of his actors and for that he deserves commending.
What doesn’t work so well, and this is a big flaw in most of Perry’s film, is that he doesn’t know how to, or chooses not to, take the melodrama down a few notches. Subtlety is not his strong suit and at times the film overwhelms with back to back horrors that are so intense, they beg the question: Can a sister get a break? While the pages of Ntozake’s poem allow for silent reflection and breathing space between the pain, Perry’s celluloid version often comes across as a visual and an emotional assault.
I wish that it had been toned down; the impact still would have come across. While it is impossible not to, It is almost unjust to compare Shange’s original to Perry’s version. One must appreciate the diversity of each, knowing that the second has been plucked lovingly from its source and been gifted to a new generation of women, and men, who will hopefully take in the messages and pick up for the play, whether for the first, second, or third time, to get a more fully dimensional experience.
Is Perry’s film perfect? Of course not; the bar on this one is very, very high. But here’s the thing: by giving us the chance to bask in the presence of the gorgeous and powerful words of Ntozake Shange interpreted by of some of our most gifted actresses makes For Colored Girls a hot ticket — enuf said.