'For Colored Girls' author finds 'few flaws' in film version

african kings

It has been more than 30 years since the original Broadway production of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. The writer’s signature work made her one of the most revered and respected writers of her generation. In the decades since the play was first performed her words have helped legions of women, and not just women of color, to reflect on the complexities of life, and the joy and pain of womanhood.

Though she’s written many other poems and books, most people’s thoughts of her harken back to the play, the “choreopoem” she performed even before it was seen on a Broadway stage. Shange is happy that her work has been embraced by many including President Barack Obama. He quoted from what he called “that play with the long title” in his book Dreams From My Father. She remarked, “If President Obama thought enough to take one of these poems from For Colored Girls out because he has two daughters and a wife, then he should take it out.”

Click here to read theGrio review of Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls

She does wonder what her legacy will be. She has hopes that one day it will be pointed out that “Zake Shange sat here.” Shange took time to talk with theGrio as she prepares to celebrate her beloved daughter’s birthday, continues promoting the forthcoming Tyler Perry film For Colored Girls, and as she discusses her most recent work Some Sing, Some Cry, a book written with her sister Ifa Bayeza.

theGrio: What’s it been like to be out and about celebrating the release of For Colored Girls?

Shange: It’s very surreal. I’m being asked a lot of the same questions I answered 30 years ago. And I’m seeing things, seeing versions of poems or dances or lack of dances or the presence of light, or twilight. I’m seeing all these things I’ve seen at least once before even though they were in a different environment. I see them [the poems and words which make up For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf] as living creatures. I think I watch movies like you watch theater. So, when I look at movies I’m not dealing with the real people and the real time. It’s really weird you know, when your body doesn’t stand up for something, because I’m used to them [those performing her work] being that close to me.

And the people’s appreciation of my work is always startling because for me it’s so long ago, and yet they are receiving it as though it was a new thing. And if that’s the case then I did my job if they accept the whole thing. It feels very funny, especially now, that I don’t have full access too all of my physical faculties. It’s very different from then, because then I was in the show, so I could feel everyone else’s sweat, and I could see everybody’s eyes darting or flicking or getting ready to cry or something. And I don’t do that with this film, it’s like twice removed from me, but I know it was there. I think he {Tyler Perry, the film’s director] did as well as to be expected. To him who is given much, much is expected.

What was your reaction to seeing the film?

I think all the actresses performed remarkably well. I hate to name anybody, because it’s an ensemble cast. It’s so difficult to pick one out as outstanding without picking the other, and so I’d have to say, all the actresses did stellar work. I think Tyler directed them well, because there were very few flaws I could find in the acting, so that’s his work and their work.

Do you agree at all with the reviews which have been highly critical and said your work was somewhat cheapened by Tyler Perry?

I haven’t seen those people in 20 years. I don’t know who those people are, they don’t know me. I don’t know who those people are. It cheapened, darling my work used to be for free. I used to do these poems by myself with a drummer or a tamboura player, or with a piano player, any kind of music player I could get. We would do it outside on a corner, and we would make art in the street, and people would throw things at us like coins. One time I had a group I was with called The Mushara Brothers and they gave me a tambourine, and I used to hop around with a tambourine to get our change for the night. One night we made $2.57 that’s all we made, and we had to divide it between the three of us. Had you ever envisioned your play going from the stage to the silver screen?

There was a PBS version in I don’t know I guess it was 1981, or 82. Lindsay Law was the producer.

What about a fictionalized version of it, were you hesitant to allow that to happen?

No, I had worked with Nzingha Stewart for maybe three sessions, and we were getting along well with a script we thought was good. And then Mr. Perry became interested.

Some have said they think this film could have benefited from a female director? Would you have liked to see a black female director such as Julie Dash or Kasi Lemmons or Nzingha Stewart or just a female director attempt this work? Do you think it needed a female director? Would you have liked to see that?

I would love to work with some of them on something else. There is a specific purpose I have for doing this, when I did it, with whom I did it. Because at this stage in my career I need to open my audience not to shut it down. But I have definitely investigated female directors. I definitely want to get back to work with Nzingha on something, and I definitely want to do something with Julie Taymor. So those are my two top.

For many this film will be their first exposure to For Colored Girls are you excited that this could encourage them to take a wider look at all your work?

I hope so. Usually that’s what happens, or what happens to me when I find a new writer, a new auteur or a new poet. You try to read everything that he or she ever wrote. That may not work for everybody, but if truth be told, then yes I would expect this to increase my readership, I would think.

You are a renowned teacher what lessons do you hope young women of color take away from this film, or hopefully reading the original play?

To maintain one’s sense of agency. To maintain your sense of control over your life and not to give it up. It’s in a whole lot of movies, but there’s a place where you can go to, where you say to yourself, I can’t go beyond this point. It can’t go any further than this, and you mean it, and you need to see it through. Hopefully that’s something that women will take away with them. And there’s another one in there. It’s very easy to say, you know, I’m busy now, I don’t have time for a man around here, right now. It’s perfectly fine to tell them to go. You know, not only did you get what you came for, you took up my time and my conversation. So, now it is time for you to go. I have to do something that you can’t help me with, so goodbye. So hopefully they learn that, that the space they’re in be it private or boxed in, is their own place, and it’s a place for them to become who they are and feel natural about it, and feel beautiful about it.

Is there also a message here for young black men?

Oh absolutely, don’t beat on women. The lesson is don’t beat and hurt women. Don’t lie to us. Don’t get us pregnant and leave us in an alley. Don’t pretend you’re coming for dinner when you’re coming to make love. There’s a whole lot of lessons in there for young black men. There’s a whole lot they could do. They need to take a notepad with them to the movie, and write down I can’t do that no more, oh I can’t do that more, oh I can’t do that more. And see how many pieces of paper they have when they leave, if they were honest. You should have a truth session.

You recently authored a new book “Some Sing, Some Cry” and said to the NYT “I don’t see any complicated, thought-provoking depictions of black people in a multilayered way,” what do you say to the new generation of artists of writers, playwrights, filmmakers, and musicians to encourage them to step it up?

I don’t and I haven’t since Roots.

And why do you think that is?

Because we’re still not essential to the running of this country. Luckily, Mr. Perry has built his own production company so we can make film, and do it all there, 34th Street Productions, is the first and only at this minute, black owned fully functional production house for film. And they’ve got between five and eight stages, and they got dressing room, they got everything you need to make a movie, and the talent available in Atlanta to do that with. And I think it’s just waiting for black people to fill it up with great work and joy. It’s just waiting for black people to come see us, when we get to do this. Because, it doesn’t make any sense to have a black studio, and black people don’t go see the movies. It’s very important that black people go see the movies, as well as that we make the movies. So, it’s a two way street.

Are there any artists right now that you’re very impressed with or that you appreciate their work that we maybe don’t know about, or you think more people need to recognize them?

Shange: Well, my sister Ifa Bayeza is one. She won the Edgar Allan Poe Award.

Shange remains hard at work, she intends to publish a collection of essays early next year, and says she will bring another work to Broadway next year as well.