Ntozake Shange was 27 in the summer of 1976 when her play hit Broadway, playing to "somewhat stunned audiences," as The New Yorker put it. Under the indeed stunningly long title For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Shange's unpunctuated free-verse "choreopoem" for seven black women weaves together lyric monologues about every rite of passage in young, vulnerable femalehood.
In the pictures taken at the time for Time and Ms. and even Mademoiselle, Shange appears chubby-cheeked and grinning, in an excess of almost childlike amazement and ingenuousness. But these exuberant portraits belie a young woman who was growing increasingly disturbed at the raucous fame and debate that greeted her colored-girl cry for "a laying on of hands / the holiness of myself released." When, later that year, Shange left her role in Colored Girls as the Lady in Orange, she also left behind her groundbreaking play. She has not returned to it in more than 25 years -- until this week in Houston.
"There was an enormous amount of antagonism towards me personally and professionally when the show opened in New York," she says. "There was a very nasty campaign waged against black women who are feminist -- it was very nasty and it was very ugly and it went on for years. [It got to the point that] I just didn't want to have anything to do with the show -- I didn't want to talk to anybody about it, I didn't want to see it.... I was very young, and it was very nasty."
Since that disturbing time the playwright hasn't read Colored Girls, she hasn't read from it, she hasn't seen a production of it, and she has done her best not to think about it. But now she has come to town to direct what will be an historic production of Colored Girls at the Ensemble Theatre.
Shange is well-known to Houston from her years of teaching creative writing at the University of Houston and Rice in the '80s. For the International Festival, she composed a suite, Ridin' the Moon in Texas, about her experiences riding with the rodeo cowboys. She had a lead role at the Alley (in Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead), was a writer-in-residence at the Ensemble, and gave a whole community of young writers what a friend of mine described as his weekly "'Zake fix" of encouragement and creative fancy. Although Shange left Houston six years ago for Philadelphia because, she says, she "needed professionally to be somewhere else," she plans to come back here, some day, to retire.
What made Shange return to the play of her emergence as a writer, the play she'd spurned so long? When Ensemble artistic director Eileen Morris called Shange and asked her to direct Colored Girls for this season of revivals (the Ensemble did a production in 1990 directed by Brenda Redmond), it took the writer a long time to reply.
"I didn't see why she needed to fly me all the way from Philadelphia to do a show that everybody's already done before." Shange stops, lights another cigarette, muses. "Something happened... I don't remember what happened. Anyway, I decided that I should own it again myself, so I just decided to come take it. It's that simple.... I get to reclaim whatever parts of myself I left here, and I get to take the show back.... Once I do this, a whole bunch of issues about the show will be resolved."
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At 45, Shange has a voice with a slurred, little-kid quality -- sometimes more, sometimes less. She pauses as she tries to think of just the right phrase to explain a nuance to her actresses during their rigorous, disciplined rehearsal sessions. "Make your voice sound rich, like tides coming in," she tells the actress playing the Lady in Red. "I know you can do that." Or she tells another, "Now it's dream-time, like in Australia." The actress tries out her lines, a fantastical love sequence. "Oh it's so pretty!" Shange cries, throwing up her arms and dancing her feet stomp stomp stomp. "I love it when y'all are beautiful."
When Shange picked her seven actresses, the director and cast sat around a big table on the Ensemble's cavelike rehearsal stage, day after day, and talked about themselves and the play -- Shange, chain-smoking, assessing her actresses' voices ("Your voices I covet," she told them) as much as their personalities, appearances and talents. The actresses in turn listened to the playwright explain her work, going through line by line and explaining where the stories originated, what she meant, figuring out together an understanding.
"Even though it has been 20 years," Shange tells me, "these women are grappling with the same if not worse situations than I examined in this piece. And they haven't had the opportunity to be as fanciful as I was.... They'll ask me things, and it'll be hard for me to figure out how they couldn't know that kind of joy, or that kind of happiness, or vulnerability -- that wasn't coerced. And that makes me sad. So I try to always leave them in rehearsal with a piece that foments some kind of wonderment, or even mischief, something. Because it seems their life has been made very..." She pauses a long moment. "...very leveled. Very leveled down."
Does the distance bring any new insights into Colored Girls for her?
"I just think I must have been having a lot of fun that I didn't know I was having.