By George Basler
Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, which premiered on Broadway in 1976, is considered a cultural milestone as one of the first works to be written from an African-American woman’s point of view.
The play was also a big hit, running 742 performances and receiving a Tony Award nomination for Best Play.
A lot has happened in four decades, but the work remains relevant and timely as America continues to have conversations about race and gender, said Amoreena Wade, who is directing a new production of the play that will be performed this weekend at the KNOW Theatre in downtown Binghamton.
All proceeds from the performances will benefit the Binghamton-based Crime Victims Assistance Center, a non-profit agency that provides help to victims of sexual abuse, domestic abuse and other crimes.
For Colored Girls … is a series of 20 free-verse monologues performed by seven women. By turns funny and emotionally jarring, the monologues cover topics ranging from discovering a childhood hero in a library book, to date rape, to abuse, to empowerment.
“A lot of why it doesn’t feel dated is that the themes are timeless: falling in love, having your heart broken, struggling in relationships, gender-based violence,” said Wade, who has acted in a number of local production, most recently in the Cider Mill Playhouse’s You Can’t Take it With You.
Wade has a personal stake in the production that goes beyond directing the play. She works as a victims’ liaison with the assistance center, helping victims navigate the criminal justice system and find services.
The cast members have a range of backgrounds from newcomers with no previous acting experience to featured performers with decades on stage. The monologues will be tied together through movement staged by Katie Barlow, a Binghamton-based independent choreographer.
For Colored Girls … is significant because it gave voice to the concerns of African-American women who had been marginalized both in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which focused on black men, and the early feminist movement of the 1970s, which focused on the concerns of white women, Wade said.
Acting newbie Giavanna Townsend, 20, tried out for the play because Shange’s words resonated with her even though they were written some two decades before she was born. “It’s a very honest representation of the essence, complexity and truth of being a woman of color,” she said.
Fellow cast member Shaunte Middleton, 26, agreed. “I can relate,” she said. “The situations are real not only to me, but people close to me.”
For Colored Girls … has retained its popularity. College theater departments often stage the play. It also was the basis of a PBS American Playhouse telefilm and a movie produced by Tyler Perry’s production company.
Wade acknowledged that the play also has been controversial, with some charging Shange’s work stigmatizes men, casting them in a negative light. She disagrees, noting even the most monstrous character — a man who beats his girlfriends and murdered his two children in a psychotic episode — is humanized. The point is made that he is suffering from PTSD caused by his military service. (In the original play, the man had served in Vietnam; in this production, the battle zone was in Iraq.)
While some of the monologues are specific to women of color, the play has universal themes, Wade emphasized. One of her biggest satisfactions in directing the play is working with a community of women: “A group of women can get together and lift each other up using art as a vehicle.”
IF YOU GO: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (March 4 and 5) at the KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Tickets at $25 can be purchased at the door or be reserved by calling 724-4341. The final dress rehearsal at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (March 3) is open to the public on a pay-what-you-can basis.