for colored girls

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Ntozake Shange (b. 1948)


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Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf is a feminist drama with unique origins. Called a choreopoem by its author, the twenty-poem drama tells the stories of the joy, pain, suffering, abuse, strength, and resilience of African American women. Its seven female characters dress in colors representing the rainbow plus brown. Each speaks individual poems and is intermittently aided and joined by other characters in collective poems, producing a choral effect. This comes directly from the work's beginning: In various cafés, bars, and poetry houses in California and New York, Shange performed and presented the poems that eventually became a dramatic unit. It was first performed in December 1974 at a women's bar outside Berkeley, California.

Music, dancing, and lighting are used with creative significance in for colored girls, with the characters often singing and dancing together to satisfy their collective need for female support. There are no props, scenery, or furniture, so lighting is used to emphasize or isolate particular characters as needed. Throughout the performance, women move in and out of the spotlight and on and off the stage. These dramatic techniques place the burden of interpretation on the actresses, who must assume different narrative personas, and require the audience members to use their imaginations.

The author notes in her stage directions that the characters live outside of large metropolitan areas in the United States, stressing their isolation from mainstream society; the “ladies” have no names for they represent all oppressed women of color. The colors of their dresses represent various degrees of emotion, with the brighter ones symbolizing vivaciousness and youth and the cooler colors designating frustration and despair. The lady in red, the most vibrant color, interprets the most violent, forceful, and memorable poem, dramatizing the plight of African American women with two significant personas. In “one,” near the beginning of the drama, she portrays a lively and glittering seductress who turns into a “regular” colored woman who cries herself to sleep in the early hours of the morning. In “of no assistance,” she rails against a lover who failed to assist her in maintaining a loving relationship, angrily disposing of him and sending him away with a heated explanation of her reason for remaining in the heretofore unsatisfying relationship. The lady in red's most violent and heartbreaking poem is “a nite with beau willie brown,” in which she tells a horrible story of physical and emotional violence perpetuated by a demented black man against his girlfriend and children; it ends in the children's murder when he throws them from a fifth-story window. Contrastingly, the lady in brown, the only color not associated with the rainbow, interprets poems on more serious and meditative subjects that represent earthly concerns and history, such as “Toussaint”, concerning the leader of the Haitian Revolution. In “pyramid,” three characters join before and after a disastrous relationship with the same man who betrayed them all and endangered their friendship; however, the poem ends with the women again turning to each other for support and consolation. Shange demonstrates and defines the assertiveness that oppressed women of color must possess in order to fulfill themselves. Her characters begin as fragmented voices but end as supported ones as their isolation diminishes through the support and consolation they give one another.


Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).

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