Forty years ago, Ntozake Shange’s groundbreaking play premiered on Broadway. And it’s still relevant today
by Kim F. Hall
Without Ntozake Shange, we would not have Beyoncé’s #LEMONADE or Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar.
Shange’s play for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, which opened on Broadway 40 years ago today, ushered in a new era. Shange centered Black women and their stories in an astonishingly innovative way that opened possibilities not only for the next generation of writers, but for countless women who now knew they were not alone. Shange gave voice and language for phenomena usually kept silent: abortion (“abortion cycle #1”), acquaintance rape (“latent rapist”), PTSD and neglect of veterans’ mental health (“a nite with beau willie brown”), and street harassment (“i used to live in the world”).
If that weren’t enough, Shange attacked and refigured the English language itself. Critics had to adopt a new vocabulary, from understanding the nature of Shange’s new genre, thechoreopoem, to learning to pronounce and spell Shange’s name. It was the second Broadway piece by a Black woman (Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun debuted in 1959) and a hunger for stories and forms outside the mainstream.
In for colored girls, poetry, dance and music combine “to sing a Black girl’s song” through a series of vignettes performed by seven “ladies” in rainbow colors. These rainbow-hued women evoke both the women of color who were part of Shange’s art and activism in California and on a deeper layer, the Orishas of Afro-Caribbean spiritual tradition. In a bicentennial year of nationalist spirit where musicals like A Chorus Line were the talk of the town, for colored girls was subversive in its “aspirational Black feminist collectivity.”
I was too young to make the trek to Broadway when it debuted, but I remember being entranced by the television commercials. In the middle of an afternoon soap opera or the evening news, I’d see Trazana Beverly as the Lady in Red pronounce:
i want you to know
this waz an experiment
to see how selifsh i cd be
if i wd really carry on to snare a possible lover
if i waz capable of debasin my self for the love of another
Those lines reverberated throughout my days. At odd moments, I’d find myself repeating this poetry whose depth I couldn’t yet fully appreciate. Trazana’s fierce delivery came at a time when I was getting trained out of “talking back”; her voice countered the mixed messages delivered at home and school about how loud and insistent black women were allowed to be if we wanted to be successful (at a career or a romance).
Shange’s attention to the challenges to Black women’s autonomy, dignity, and capacity for love resonated with many women, but it also produced a vitriolic backlash: commentary on the airwaves and in the street was laced with misogynoir and fear. During the play’s run on Broadway and for years after, Shange and other Black feminists like Michelle Wallace and Alice Walker were accused of hating and endangering Black men. Sociologist Robert Staples proclaimed that in watching for colored girls, “One sees a collective appetite for Black male blood.” Shange’s lawyer considered getting bodyguards for her. Shange notes that, having been in women-centered spaces for much of her adult life, she underestimated how threatening a woman-centered piece would be in the larger world.
for colored girls still is a women’s trip,
and the connection we can make through it,
with each other and for each other, is to empower us all
Over the past 40 years, with performances in theaters and on campuses across the U.S. and around the world, audiences have understood for colored girls as a profoundly healing work with a deep love for black people. The women find “God in themselves,” embracing their need for sexual and transcendent love and communion with each other. Not surprisingly, many minority communities (queer Black women, queer Black men, Black nerds, other women of color) have taken up the piece as inspiration. For Shange, the choreopoem was the beginning of her lifetime work of getting at the heart of Black womanhood. Healing for Black people is a multifaceted journey, and the choreopoem is a rightfully complex form that has provided nourishment for other writers working for individual and social transformation.
Seeing Trazana Beverly on our television years ago, I never imagined I’d become a college professor, much less that I would read for colored girls and other Shange works with hundreds of students. I certainly never dreamed that I would be privileged to carry on a Black feminist legacy: teaching with Ntozake Shange’s Collection at Barnard College, where students and researchers find inspiration and communion. Our Digital Shange project preserves and promotes Ntozake’s legacy of collaboration, transformation and excellence for future generations of women, especially those for whom the classroom is not enuf.
Kim F. Hall is the Lucyle Hook Professor of English and Professor of Africana Studies at Barnard College where she created Digital Shange, a Digital Humanities project which uses Ntozake Shange’s works and her collection to offer students a multi-modal understanding of the African diaspora, Women’s History and the Performing Arts. Follow her on Twitter @ProfKFH.