Sometimes bad productions happen to good plays. Other times bad productions happen to stellar casts. In the case of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, a script and a cast offering nothing short of greatness, a bad production takes what could have been one of the season’s most moving evenings in the theater and instead renders it somewhere toward the outer region of adequate.
Written by Ntozake Shange, For Colored Girls (a 1976 Tony Nominee for Best Play) mixes spoken word poetry (20 separate poems in all) with a sprinkling of song and dance in an exploration of the contemporary female black experience . Seven nameless women, clad in black, each with a shock of a particular color to distinguish them (including nail polish), take turns delivering storytelling verse, covering everything from rape, to abortion, to domestic violence to young love to yearning for love to loosing love to finding love within.
Without question, Shange’s poetry resonates. Using the vernacular of her character’s every day speech, she allows them to unleash torrents of emotions that show the struggle these women face in a society that tells them they aren’t worthy simply because of the color of their skin and their XX chromosome. These are words you want to savor. To roll around in your head and taste on your tongue.
You want to spout the lines from No Assistance the next time someone you love treats you badly. You want to shout passages from Sorry when, once again, someone is making excuses. You definitely want to scream out the entire poem, Latent Racists, when you read about or experience one more instance of male sexual misconduct. And, if you happen not to be black, you want to listen and learn from the words in Toussaint, I Usedta Live in the World and the No More Love Poems series that describe the specific challenges these women face and the spaces they inhabit.
These poems may have been written in the mid '70s, but unfortunately they still resonate today on far too many levels. Perhaps the only tell when it comes to the play’s age is the curation of poems that almost unanimously addresses these women’s experiences in direct relation to the men in their lives. The ones they want, the ones they can’t have, the ones they want to get rid of, the ones that do them harm the ones that keep them down. This is a sisterhood fully infected by men. There is no room for talk of women without them. But then it’s not like sexism and misogyny have disappeared since Shange wrote her verse. Nor has racism for that matter, another theme in her poems.
Besides, any thought of this script being just a tad antiquated flies out the window thanks to the gloriously talented seven young talents who make up the cast. Estée Burks, Sonya D. Gooden, Kimberly Hicks, Sara Jackson, Anna Maria Morris, Destiny Mosley and Raven Troup tear through the dialogue with ferocious hunger, welling up with emotions so real we swear their tears are real. Equally talented in the song and dance portions of the show, these women are without question triple threats that deserve way more stage time than Houston is presently giving them.
So with all this talent backing up a killer script, what went wrong?
The production's failings begin even before the women take the stage and we see what will be passing for the set design (Dabrina Sandifer). While Obsidian is known for its minimal/cheap and cheerful sets, there’s no question that this one has to rank as the most unattractive design we’ve seen in a long time. With its worn looking black and white risers and pasted on light brown unfinished lattice looking pieces in places, the whole thing looks like a thrown together rehearsal room. Add on the large murals of seemingly finger painted whirls of color onto white paper tacked onto the back wall, and the space thing takes on the atmosphere of an abandoned and gutted kindergarten classroom.
It’s hard to tell whether the sound design (Sandifer) which cut in and out jarringly between scenes with mood killing poppy music was planned or part of the many technical difficulties the show had on opening night. Surely the lighting (Nikki Jay and Sandifer) was a mistake. Or at least one would hope that a glaringly bright light shone right in the audience’s eyes, blinding them several times and a spotlight that had difficulty finding its actor and too many instances of darkness on stage, wasn’t part of the plan.
Then there was the direction itself by Sandifer, who, it seems, spread herself too thin helming the lighting and set design to get a firm grasp on the staging. The first half of the show has the girls inelegantly plodding around the set, coming and going as each takes her turn with the poems. Blackouts between scenes to move a bench or riser sap momentum and too often the actors feel forced into place instead of a fluid flow of motion.
Around the late middle of the play, things get into a better groove. Mostly gone are the intrusive blackout/inappropriate music moments and instead the women have room to weave in and out of the poems more naturally . In fact, the more Sandifer gets out of the way and lets her actors do their thing, the more successful the show becomes.
By the time the second to last poem, A Nite With Beau Willie Brown plays out, we are utterly enveloped in suspense and ultimate horror of this domestic violence/PTSD story. You could hear a pin drop. But just when Sandifer has us in the palm of her hand, she messes it up again with of all things, the ovation.
I’ve never been one to believe that a serious or sad play needs a sombre curtain call to drive home the message. But nor is it wise to yank an audience from a heart wrenching ending and thrust them immediately into watching those same actors boogey to music with smiles on their faces in some kind of choreographed final bow number.
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No question, the cast had something to celebrate. Namely faring so beautifully without much to support them. But perhaps waiting to dance backstage or at least at the after party may have been the better choice. Oh well, at least the lighting and sound worked for that moment.
*Final note. Regardless of any issues noted, Obsidian (a company run by white artists) must be lauded for doing right by this play in the hiring of the production team. Ninety nine percent of who were people (mostly women) of color. This is a play told by people on and off the stage who know of what the story speaks of. Who know how to ask the right questions and make sure it’s done correctly.
In the past I’ve had discussions with other white run companies who shy away from ever doing plays by and about people of color because they don’t feel it’s their place or don’t know how to approach the material. This is how you do it. This is how you start to get diverse voices on your stage. This is how theater in Houston can begin to tell stories that all the people in Houston can relate to. And most urgently, this is the time to do it.
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf continues through February 17 at Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak Drive. For tickets visit obsidiantheater.org or call 832-889-7837. $20-$30.