It makes absolutely no sense that the dynamic Broadway production of Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf,” which is brilliantly directed and choreographed by Camille A. Brown and features a cast of seven extraordinarily talented young actresses, and has received seven Tony Award nominations, was the subject of reports that it was in danger of closing due to sluggish ticket sales.
Following an earlier announcement that the show must close, the most Tony-nominated play currently on Broadway will now play an additional two weeks through Sunday, June 5, at Broadway’s Booth Theatre (222 W. 45th Street). The previously announced final performance was Sunday, May 22.
After all, Brown’s explosively energetic and inspired iteration of Shange’s mold-shattering masterpiece takes audiences on an emotional roller coaster. It’s a journey that begins with the naïve exuberance of children’s games before moving on to young girl’s sexual rites of passage, womanhood’s cautionary tales, exhilarating highs and devastating, traumatic lows. All, as seven “colored girls” take us through Ntozake’s world of words following a color-coded road map of mood-setting movements expertly crafted by Brown. Actors skip, run, jump, bump and grind, clap and moan embodying every expressed emotion as they offer breathy declarations of love, angry claims that “Somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff,” painful personal stories like “abortion cycle #1- 4,” or the bone-chilling tragic tale of “a night with beau willie brown.” Rounding it out is a transcendent spiritual awakening and “a layin’ on of hands” by a regenerative sister circle. “for colored girls” is unmistakably powerfully and spiritually cathartic. Therefore, that there is even talk of it closing because of sluggish ticket sales makes no sense.
First, not only is this joyful celebration of Shange’s seminal work making history as the first Broadway production directed and choreographed by a Black woman in more than 65 years, but its seven performers are phenomenal and critics have sung its praises. Critics have declared Camille A. Brown’s staging “so attuned to the words and cadences of Shange’s choreopoem, yet so confident in its own interpretive vision, that the characters blossom into their full vibrancy.” And, the performances by Amara Granderson, Tendayi Kuumba, Okwui Okpokwashili, Stacey Sargeant, Alexandria Wailes, D. Woods not to mention, Tony-nominated Kenita R. Miller, blow audiences away.
If that isn’t reason enough to prompt a groundswell of support, there is the fact that Shange’s work was clearly destined to join the canon of great African American works in theater history the moment it burst onto the scene back in 1976. And, it was destined to be a hit, according to Woodie King, the producer who gave Shange’s choreopoem its first theatrical home at his New Federal Theatre, after seeing it at the invitation of Shange’s sister, Ife Bayeza, in a little bar on 3rd Street. Ntozake has said that her sister had “a larger vision of ‘for colored girls’” than she had ever imagined. As a result, it blossomed in the 1970s with the help of King, then-director Oz Scott, subsequent co-producer Joseph Papp, and a group of young performers, all in their 20s, that included, Trezana Beverley, who went on to become the first ever African American winner of the Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Play, Laurie Carlos, Aku Kadogo, Paula Moss, Janet League, Rise Collins, and Shange herself as the Lady in Orange.
King says from the moment he saw it he “really loved it.” He suggested a showcase at his New Federal Theatre at the Henry Street Settlement where he had produced seminal Black Arts Movement plays by Ed Bullins, Ron Millner, and others. “Immediately there were lines around the block. People just loved it ‘cause Black theater was doing stuff that attracted Black people and this play attracted Black women, immediately.
“Then, I invited the Public Theatre’s Joseph Papp to see it and he said ‘Whoa!’” The next move to the Public Theater was a no-brainer. “Papp knew it wouldn’t cost that much. It had already had rehearsals and then-director Oz Scott was in place.” The rest is, as they say, history. Night after night, the Public Theater was packed. It got rave reviews and won off-Broadway’s highest honor, an Obie Award. The next stop was Broadway. Shange was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. King and Papp won the Tony for Best Producer. Trezana Beverley, the original Lady in Red, whose riveting “Night with Beau Willie Brown” monologue made her the first African American actress to win a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play (the award the current production’s Kenita R. Miller has been nominated for), speaking of the hard work and focus that allowed her “to bring an extra layer of depth to the role,” noted that, “It was like we were having a religious experience. The essence of that was in Ntozake’s writing, because I think that when you are writing from that level of truth and passion, it does have that spiritual connection and that’s what was coming over.”
That same spiritual connection is evident in the 2022 production as Camille A. Brown’s direction and choreography creates an alchemy that is the essence of Black Girl magic. CUNY African American Literature Professor Dr. Brenda Greene says it blends poetry, music and dance in a way that transformed the theater into a church the night she saw it. “I saw it with a predominantly Black audience and people were responding to Ntozake bridging a gap as she paid tribute to the African ancestors while expressing not only what was happening in her role as a Black woman in this culture but throughout the African diaspora. She was looking at the similarities and looking at ritual and how all that helped define who she was as a woman.” Greene says the power of the work also lay in the fact that, “Ntozake was part of that group of Black feminist writers, like Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and others, who laid the groundwork for conversations about the importance of Black women having our stories told.
“Look at what’s happening now, and the possibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned. It’s just indicative of the society we live in that continues to try to silence women, particularly women who may be more subjected to inequities. ‘For colored girls’ spoke truth to power,” Greene adds, pointing to a key aspect of the work. That is just as true now as it was back then. After all, 1976 was a time when the air crackled with the electricity generated by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and the Women’s and LGBTQ movements were going strong. Chants of “Keep Your Laws Off My Body” filled the air. After all, Roe v Wade was only three years old. Ntozake’s choreopoem embodied those conversations on a global scale. Green notes, “You have to look at how you engage people to force them to listen and I think since we’re dealing with so many of the same issues now as we were then, Camille A. Brown’s staging does a really good job of setting that out. I think if people could see it they could relate to it. ‘For colored girls’…is intergenerational because it tells those stories that, as women we only talk to each other about and…telling our stories is a way to heal. I think all women across races and across classes can appreciate that. Cause we’ve all been there.” All the more reason why this play should be a box office smash.
According to Don Sutton, literary trustee of the Shange Revocable Trust and seven-year steward of the production, “The first time around, ‘for colored girls’ opened in September 1976 with a significant advance in ticket sales because folks, especially Black folks, had gotten the buzz from what had happened at the Public Theatre also, the Black press gave it the necessary boost. That success quickly brought in the customary Broadway audience as it played to sold out audiences a week by the end of 1976 with that continuing through 1977 to the end of 1978. The play ran more than two years. It ran 200 performances longer than Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ and at the time that made Ntozake and Lorraine Hansberry the only two Black women to have a Broadway hit.”
Why, in 2022, was there even talk about it closing if ticket sales don’t pick up? Makes no sense especially since the Black community helped make “for colored girls” the box-office leader of the 1976-’77 theatrical season. It was a huge success—owing primarily to Black audiences the first time around. Don’t we have the power to make it a success again? I think so.