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Returning to Her True Colors

Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls is a restorative song of female transformation

The night I saw For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, as it happened the playwright and director, Ntozake Shange, sat immediately in front of me, her red hair braided in tiny rivulets and twined in coarser dreadlocks nearly touching the program in my lap. As the show opens, seven women race onto the stage, delivering a rap-style chorus. In her seat, Shange was getting down, swaying, singing along, getting it right on. It felt like an important moment.

When Shange returned to Houston to direct Colored Girls at the Ensemble Theatre, it was more than a routine visitation in the life of a famous writer. It was, in fact, a coming home, a return to roots, a reclaiming, as she put it, of a lost part of herself. For in 1978 Shange, a fresh celebrity at age 27, had left the original Broadway production, disturbed by the antagonism incited by her ground-breaking poetic work; since that time, she had sidestepped any contact with her by-now classic play. Only now, after 15 years, did Ntozake Shange decide it was time to take back her play.

Colored Girls is the type of play that lends itself to transformative experiences. Commonly described as a "choreopoem," it lacks a typical plot and characters, instead unfolding in a series of monologues and group pieces about what Shange calls "problems and mysteries that in some way or another have to do with all different kinds of rites of passage for women": the first make-believe friend, first sex, first betrayal by a friend, and so on into abortion, the many varied relationships with men, and even losing one's children. The catharsis, therefore, is not a narrative one. Instead it occurs as these women tell their emotional stories, weaving a breadth of experience ranging from the light and the childlike to the abrupt, the caustic and even the despairing. And through their recounting of this pain -- in the famous, culminating "Beau Willie Brown" sequence in particular -- they cut deep enough to make way for the final, revival-like transformation.

The Ensemble production amply lives up to the play's evocative potential. The stage is bare against backdrop flats with crudely painted swamp trees, their spidery roots visible, perhaps presaging the line from the play's ecstatic ending, "i fell into a numbness / til the only tree i cd see / took me up in her branches." Although the cast is not entirely even, it seems mean-spirited to rate the actresses against each other, so much is this a play of sisterhood and support. Indeed, watching the two youngest actresses, although they may at times have been less adept than the others, I felt as if we were watching them grow up onstage as the evening and the intermission-less play proceeded.

Alice Gatling is outstanding, especially in her "mambo bomba merengue" South Bronx Puerto Rican sequence, so adroitly varied that she is wrenching laughter out of the audience one moment, subduing it to a holy hush the next, as she describes the subtle blues of Archie Shepp. She evokes the music itself, practically whispering in awesome incantation "and if jesus cdnt play a horn like shepp / waznt no need for colored folks to bear a cross at all."

Although Jean Donatto at times plays her stories too much on one plane, her portrayal of the Beau Willie Brown saga, swept into ever-deeper water by a narrative that can't be turned back, carries a force that goes beyond acting. She's almost hoarse by the climax, after which there's that awful hush, which is then exactly, unenduringly pierced right through the center by her wail of realization.

Cheray Martin is game and ever-ready in her little-girl, Toussaint L'Ouverture piece, although she steps on some of her laughs. But by the end of the play, she has grown a compelling depth. Angela Lemond provides a gorgeous dance counterpart for the Sechita sequence, beautifully choreographed by Michael Ballard. With exquisite body awareness, she slowly straightens her long leg up to a point way above her head, or flutters her hands in stylized Japanese-like butterfly movements. All the while her face, perfect and immobile, brings forth the far-reaching control that women can muster -- exquisite and soul-stifling -- in contrast to the freedom and spontaneity of the women in most of the play. However, Lemond's spoken pieces, especially her back-seat-of-a-Buick story, suffer from her unrelentingly ebullient tone.

LaJuano Brown, the only actress returning from the Ensemble's first production of Colored Girls in 1990, has features that seem to set themselves too easily into exaggeration, but she is strong and tragic in the abortion poem. Dionne Hemphill provides steady support, and Helen Sanders' narrator is human, intelligent and piercing.

 
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