As the Lady in Red of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf," Trazana Beverley transforms her doughy contours her downturned nose and her lashing voice into her own rainbow of characters. All of them tell it like it has been somewhere along the line for every black woman - the seconds, even years, of being blue, bitter, naive, sassy-tough and tender.
"The Lady in Red, what doea she stand for? I don't know if I can find the words. She's a lady of primary colors," says Beverley, one of the seven actresses in Ntozsake Shange's collage of poetry and rhythms. She searches in the mahogany-colored pool of her coffee cup for the definition of what she so easily embodies each evening. "Well, she's fire, she's energy - she vibrates. And I feel very much at home with her."
Something about the poetry of Ntozake Shange, and even now she doesn't know exactly what, struck a chord when Beverley first heard the spare but trenchant verses. Shange, 28, who grew up in New Jersey, had been reciting poetry in the California literary bars during the early 1970s; she bought the musical verses, crowded with street lingo and small letters, back east in 1974. Eventually, they melted in a chorepoem.
Then a fledging actress in New York's avant-guarde thearter circles, Beverley joined the original cast and watched the ascendency of Shange's career and her own, helped along by a Tony Award earlier this year. "For Colored Girls . . ." opened for a four-week run at the National Theater last night.
For most of her time on stage, Beverley is mad: The mad that makes you red hot and swinging the public mad; and the mad that makes you cool out in the bathtub, hide under the pillows and cry - the private amad.
And mad is something that Trazana Beverley doesn't seem to be. She is a child of northwest Baltimore's gentle streets, a neigborhood during her childhood that was much like Washington's Shaw 25 years ago - streets that led to Sunday school and backyard outings surrounded by the warmth of plain people.
"I'm very much a private person. I am shy, but I am getting less shy . . . and I am a very spiritual person," says Beverley. "And I am searching for the plays. How do we, as women, mistreat ourselves?"
As she talks, shifting her tone from interview patter to reflective answers.Beverley shows two very different faces. In one, when the responses are automatic, her caramel skin glows and her timid smile gives her heart shaped face a cherubic look. But as she concentrates, her thin, wild eyebows close over her brown eyes, the lips with the candy-pink lipstick pucker; she looks contorted and a bit evil.
On stage, she uses the bad, mad face to show the internal churning the searching in her first character. Beverley is the rejected lover, boiling inside but flaunting indifference. "If Ic'd stand not being wanted/when I wanted to be wanted - and I cannot/so/with no further assistance and poguidance from you/I am ending this affair."
Then she's the lady of the orange butterflies and sequins who's afraid to give herself totally, who teases and mocks, who yearns to be "a memory, a wound/to every man." When the men leave, she cries.
Finally, Beverley is Crystal and Beau Willie Brown, a couple entwined in a cruel love and a life without solution. "Beau Willie Brown/get outta here/the police is gonna come for ya/ya food/get outta here/do you want the children to see you act the fool again."
Though the cadence and the images are derived directly from the black experience, Beverley feels the personal confessions give "For Colored Girls . . ." a universal appeal. "To me it means what it has meant to every other women who has seen it. That we have not been talking about ourselves. There's a passage that talks about 'no use holdin' out/holdin' onto ourselves/lets think our way outta feelin'. It's about revealing ourselves." Beverley pauses, a long wrinkled pause, before she continues.
"I know by the time the tragic moment occurs near the end: it becomes extremely tense for me as an actress and as a human being, I am only able to tell the story of Trazana/Crystal because it's in my past. When I fall down from the exhaustion of that experience, and the girls crowd around me and the laying on of hands occurs, I am getting something I was missing. I am able to move from having my identity shatterred to the I-found-God section. As we talk, all we want is for people to hear what we are trying to say, to listen before they get upset."
But she refuses to talk about her own silent wounds, the hidden ones that when exposed are rough and painful - like some of Shange's poetry. After watching "For Colored Girls . . .", some black men have felt wounded and some women have thought it unkind.
The piece is more about women than men. All of the characters could have been expanded. It's about the reality of love," explains Beverley. "We have all loved someone we would do everything for, subsequently we got stepped on - and we didn't want to be stepped on. Recently, I caught myself using Zake's line: I do ya like I do ya cause I thot you could take it, now I'm sorry." And we all do that. But black women have a double edge, we have mistreated ourselves. Sometimes I think we are supposed to suffer, to bear a cross and hold men up. We had to do that historically, Zake's biggest point is that, now, first comes the self; no one can live my life for me."
Very early Beverley decided that her life would be the theater. At the age of 5 she was Goldilocks at Baltimore's Sharp Street Memorial Methodist Church. Her parents worked as a brickmason and schoolteacher, and she knew no one in the theater and rarely saw a professional production.
"It was a phenomenon to me, to everybody, that I wanted to act," says Beverley, settled into her peaceful look. "I saw actresses on television, and remember liking Bette Crawford - she was cool." After studying at West Virginia State College and New York University, she worked with Jerzy Grotowski, the director and studied with Andrei Serban and Jean Erdman.
So far, her experiences have been with experimental theater - Omer Shapli's group, Section Ten; The Family, a company composed of former convicts; and the Negro Ensemble Company. She worries about the next steps: not for herself, but for black theater. "I want stronger, broader black theater, with full use of our folklore and lifestyles. If we are going to talk about the realities of pimps and prostitutes, I'm not so interested in the results but the causes," she says.
Quite natually, she views. "For Coloreed Girls . . . " as a firm step toward a more realistic and ritualistic theater. What "For Colored Girls . . ." has given Beverley, for the moment, are attractive offers - she will work with Cicely Tyson in a television special on the life of Harriet Tubman, the slave who started the Underground Railroad - and stardom.
She looks at stardom with a wary frown. Something I think about Trazana, the star, in the classic or cliche sense - the autographs and things - but that's more in the way people treat you," she says: and true to her outlook, she is not decked out in fox but in old black corduroy pants, a white fishnet sweater, an orange silk scarf and a blue wool shawl.
"But I do feel gifted. I feel I have a definite place on earth, and I feel I am supposed to be here right now." CAPTION: Picture 1, Trazana Beverly's smile gives her heart-shaped face a cherubic look, By Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post.
Picture 2, but standing on stage in 'For Colored Girls . . . .' she uses a bad, mad face. By Ellsworth Davis - The Washington Post