The empowerment of Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” doesn’t date, and the simmering verbal style of this 1976 “choreopoem” will land easily on younger ears reared on hip-hop.
Still, Theater Alliance’s new production of this famous all-female dramatic riff might feel a lot more archival and museum-y if it weren’t alternating with a smart companion piece, the all-male hip-hop meditation “Word Becomes Flesh.” Like “colored girls,” Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s “Word” explores black lives and focuses on gendered experience as a young man comes to grips with his girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy.
The shows run separately but speak fluently together. (You can catch them back to back on weekends at the Anacostia Playhouse.) Neglect and sorrow ripple through “colored girls,” as always, while the comparatively newer “Word” looks at pressures on men. Both shows thrive on high style, compressing ideas into poetic lines.
Shange’s “colored girls” proved itself long ago, with moody, lyrical passages existing alongside briefly sketched characters and their occasionally harrowing experiences. This staging by respected local performer Deidra LaWan Starnes doesn’t try to put a new spin on the script, and it actually feels a little dry and dutiful as the familiar figures — women dressed in flowing solid colors such as red, brown and yellow — glide, dance and take their storytelling solos.
The vignettes detail everything from youthful romance (with a political tinge) to abuse and rape, and the thoughts are vivid and sometimes powerful, accompanied by jazz and Latin music in David Lamont Wilson’s sound design. Yet the seven performers don’t make it feel personal, which is pivotal, until comparatively late, when the piece’s humor and fury more fully emerge. A show that feels oddly straightforward finally finds its delectable complexity in monologues by Natalie Tucker (as a woman who needs to claim what she calls her own “stuff”) and Naomi LaVette (who finds rich variations in being tired of the word “sorry”).
“Word Becomes Flesh” started as a solo show more than a decade ago and then was adapted for five men; under Psalmayene 24’s direction it pops like an energetic concert. Louis E. Davis, Chris Lane, Clayton Pelham Jr., Gary L. Perkins III and Justin Weaks fuse as a tight unit, giving voice to a 27-year-old man’s fear, anger and hope as expressed to an unborn son.
If Sandra L. Holloway’s choreography in “colored girls” flows, Tony Thomas’s movement in “Word” is more percussive and explosive. The sonic influence is not jazz but hip-hop, a style provocatively analyzed in one monologue that asks why the music has to be so hard. The quintet moves athletically across the stage’s staggered, dramatically lighted platforms (Ethan Sinnott did the scenic design), and the actors speak with verve. They lean skillfully on rhythms and rhymes, and bring savvy to bitter, knowing lines such as “It wouldn’t be called a system unless it worked.”
Not that it’s a bitter show, although it has been brought up to the minute with current references that are sometimes verbal, sometimes visual. Like “colored girls” (which Shange updated several years ago), “Word” gives voice to frustrations, but also to dreams. The questioning spirit and synchronized energy of its performance are particularly galvanizing.
Theater Alliance at Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Place SE. 202-241-2539. theateralliance.com.
Dates: Through March 26.