In the opening moments of the television adaptation of Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf," the poet cradles her daughter and wonders how to communicate to the next generation all the joy and pain, all the dilemmas of growing up a black woman.
Part of the answer is tonight's presentation at 9 on WETA, Channel 26, of her 1976 play, which became an electrifying Broadway hit and provoked heated exchanges about the relationships between black men and women. With the teleplay's solid adaptation of the theater piece, the art is now an accessible legacy, even if its historical context is not.
When "For Colored Girls . . ." debuted, Shange's choreo-poem became the talk of literary circles. Its form--seven women on the stage dramatizing poetry--was a refreshing slap at the traditional, one-two-three-act structures. Its subject matter, the experiences of black women of the 1950s and '60s, had never been interpreted by the strong hand of a black women writer. It was Shange's perspective that locked many of the black critics into a fierce debate over the merits of a black feminist point of view that either ignored or demeaned the black man. This production will probably not rekindle any of that debate because other black feminist works have joined "For Colored Girls . . ." and Shange's work isn't taken anymore as a general statement. The ultra-serious debate it inspired between black men and women just five years ago seems slightly whimsical now that the leisurely introspection of that time has been replaced with grimmer economic realities.
While the emotions over the work may have cooled, "For Colored Girls . . ." has not lost its vitality. Shange deserves praise as a singular American voice. The language retains a punchy vividness, from the vernacular curses, to descriptions of dancing, "giving much quick feet." Some of the scenes raise the ordinary to memorable poetry, as when the women share the experience of one girl losing her virginity and talk about that night's party. ("he started looking at me real strange/like i waz a woman or somethin.")
Others are sharp explosions of frustration. In two scenes tonight Trazana Beverley, who won a Tony Award for her work in the original, ensnares the viewer into her misery, first in a playful diatribe against a lover: "without any assistance or guidance from you/i have loved you assiduously for 8 months 2 wks & a day," and then into the tale of Beau Willie, who kills her self-respect and then her children.
To transfer "For Colored Girls . . ." to PBS' American Playhouse series, the original director, Oz Scott, and Shange have added numerous sets, including nightclubs, street scenes, picnics and pajama parties. This has a strange effect. On stage, the women in their identical costumes with seven colors but without any props or much makeup signaled universality. The additional elements take away the rawness and anonymity and, at times, are distracting.
The cast has a balance of strengths, with Lynn C. Whitfield and Carol Lynn Maillard, veterans of the old D.C. Black Repertory Company, particulary enjoyable. For some tastes some of the scenes might be more authentic than necessary, especially the abortion poem shot over the covered "V" of Whitfield's legs as she cries, "get them steel rods outta me/this hurts/this hurts me."
None of "For Colored Girls . . ." is to be taken lightly. As one of Shange's characters says, "& she wanted to be unforgettable/she wanted to be a memory." Tonight's fine broadcast will document the old memories and perhaps create some new ones.