HETC’s ‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf’ is not only for colored girls
Read More: Dorothy “Dee Dee” Miller, Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company, Jaeda Reames, Kaleeta Johnson-Anderson, Kevonnie Elaine Shelton, Margarette Joyner, Ntozake Shange, Pamela Archer-Shaw, Tyra Robinson, Valerie Davis
I have a confession. I have been culturally aware of Ntozake Shange’s poetic drama since I was in college in the mid to late 70’s when it was first produced. I have never read nor seen the play before now. As a white male, I assumed it did not speak to me and I’m embarrassed to say it frightened me some. An evening of militant black female power poetry gave this Jewish boy from the suburbs the willies. Like all generalized uneducated prejudices, I was wrong.
This piece is beautiful. These women aren’t militant, they are women. They are strong. They are articulate. They are united. Their stories, pains and joys are universal. Their stories may have the greatest resonance with African American females because these are specifically “their” stories, but I have to say, from what I heard and saw, these women represent all oppressed peoples, all subordinated women, all discriminated humans.
I was right to be hesitant about one of the piece’s themes: men are barbarians. Women love to love them but they also hate to have to love their sorry selves. The “baby, I’m sorry” machismo crap these men lay on their women had a familiar ring. I don’t know that it’s a cultural, societal or even an economic characteristic. Just as women are women, men are men and in Ms. Shange’s world, men do not come off particularly well, but it’s a bias I forgave and even welcomed as the evening progressed. It is no wonder this piece has remained relevant for forty plus years.
The beauty of the play is multifaceted. It is composed of twenty or so pieces of poetry performed both by individual women and by groups of women. It incorporates dance and song. It shows that there is strength in numbers. Strength in sharing. Resolution of pain in the comfort of others. Greater joy in the affirmation of one’s peers. It is a great opportunity for a strong ensemble.
A strong ensemble of beautiful women is what we get. Women of various ages, sizes, temperaments and emotions. Although generically named by color (Red, Green, Yellow, etc.) these women all prove to be individuals. This ensemble of women were honest and real. They listened to each other. They actively empathized with each other. They gave each character great dignity and personas that belied their generic names.
Besides Margarette Joyner, I had never seen any of these women on a Richmond stage before and that is a crime. These women gave some of the most honest performances I have seen all year. I am proud to call them out by name: Dorothy “Dee Dee” Miller, Kaleeta Johnson-Anderson, Margarette Joyner, Kevonnie Elaine Shelton, Pamela Archer-Shaw, Tyra Robinson, Valerie Davis and stage manager Jaeda Reames.
Although each actress brought life to their stories with craft and finesse, I will single out Ms. Joyner, if only because she is assigned the penultimate piece in the play, a heart wrenching, devastating tale of grief that she delivers so realistically that you want to jump onto the stage to hold her and cry with her. To say I was moved is an understatement.
Shanea Taylor is the master craftsman behind this thing of beauty. She delivers smart and intelligently powerful interpretations as the co-creator of these characters. Best of all she is the only director this season who has dealt with a minimalistic set effectively. The stage is black, the curtains are black. The set pieces are six square black boxes which are most often used as seats. Ms. Taylor’s best decision was to limit the boxes to six, despite having seven actresses. This always keeps one of the actresses in flux, and Ms. Taylor choreographs these women to move about the stage and weave through the boxes with purpose and ease. She rearranges the boxes to form squares and rectangles and lines and circles and jigsaws and diagonals so that your eye is always entertained.
No director I know thinks it is easy moving seven people through space continually for 75 minutes. It seems the most difficult challenges bring either the worst, or in this case, the best results.
The black (set) on black (curtains) on black (boxes) on black (women’s pants) scheme was gloriously contrasted with Margarette Joyner’s exquisite brightly colored palate of women’s tops (each matching their generic name).
I had one peeve and it seems ridiculously small. The pre-show and show music featured beautiful, soulful renditions of classic songs sung by African American women, but the sound operator consistently failed to fade out gently, too often ending abruptly.
The Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company is too low on the collective Richmond Theatre radar. I was warned not to expect too much. Those people (and you know who you are) need to hush their mouths and get slapped aside their heads and run to the too few remaining performances of this wonderfully produced show.
The beauty of this production is that this new resonance is allowed to develop on its own without drawing attention to itself.September 23, 2016
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