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Literary Lion

When For Colored Girls (34th Street Films/Lionsgate) opened in movie theatres November 5, the film adaptation of the award-winning play by Ntozake Shange ’70, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, became the third-highest grossing film that weekend. Shange (née Paulette Williams) appreciates the big screen success, describing it positively as “very surprising and very gratifying.” The present momentum feels like “a tremor, like an earthquake” for her. Just as the play’s Broadway debut did 34 years prior, the cinematic debut of polarizing writer- director Tyler Perry’s interpretation of Shange’s seminal work has also caused a disturbance in the cultural atmosphere.

Shange originally created “seven ladies in simple colored dresses” who speak, sing, and dance their painful life experiences on stage. Through their poetic re-telling, these women find mutual support and healing. Perry’s writing and direction takes us out of the suspended time of performance art and into the simulated real time of cinematic narrative. His multi-millionaire independent auteur status also attracts recognizable names to the cast: Loretta Divine, Kimberly Elise, Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, Tessa Thompson, and Kerry Washington. The seven women retain their colors throughout their wardrobe, but Perry shuffles the poetry and redistributes it among the women, which include two new voices, Gilda and Alice, portrayed by Phylicia Rashad and Whoopi Goldberg, respectively.

Admittedly, Shange had reservations about Perry as a director. “I was concerned with Mr. Perry because he does primarily [broad comedy],” she says. Recalling director Oz Scott, who directed the play in the 1970s, and the PBS telecast in 1982, Shange says, “Oz was fabulous to work with. He’s a brilliant director, a brilliant artist. Very sensitive. His work has a textual and visual quality.”

Although Perry’s reassignment of some of the poetic language works well, as do many of his cinematographic choices, his own lack of finesse with dialogue at times snags the creative fiber of the film, most evident through the hit-or-miss interweaving of his words with Shange’s, and by over-writing where visual impact and emotional resonance would be more powerful. Shange has said she’s 85 percent happy with Perry’s results, yet his reputation for conservative, moral-driven films where independent women characters are vilified and require adaptation to traditional roles in their relationships with men has dissatisfied skeptics and critics alike. “I was aware of Mr. Perry being accused of not being sensitive to women and their lives in his films,” Shange acknowledges. “That was the 15 percent I wasn’t happy with.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, men also were not happy about some of these characterizations. One male reviewer, for New York Magazine, describes the male characters as “one stereotypical dog after another.” The angry, violent reactions of black men to the play in the 1970s are matched by their new-millennium cyber attacks on the film, primarily energized by one Washington Post column-gone- viral that suggests the film be renamed For Black Men Who Have Considered Homicide After Watching Another Tyler Perry Movie. Shange, however, remains blissfully out of the loop. “I wasn’t aware of [men’s current criticisms of the film], probably because this time it’s not directed at me,” she admits with a laugh. What the similarity of reactions reveals is a bit more sobering for her. “It makes me very sad, and it makes me think we haven’t come very far in 30 years,” she laments. “We have to communicate with each other. We can’t speak past one another. It’s sad.”

As her surname suggests (Claude Sloan, Shange’s assistant, says the name was a gift bestowed on the author by two South African revolutionaries), Shange “walks like a lion” through both the negative and positive aftereffects. This ability might be attributed to her survival of very challenging moments in her life—attempts at suicide, two debilitating strokes, daily living with mental illness. Asked if any of these personal experiences show up in her writing, particularly in for colored girls, Shange concludes, “I’m not sure how much it represents my life. My poems are usually pretty literal. I’m sure there’s some [of myself present].” Yet she shrugs off the notion that she is some sort of cultural figure for women who tell her that they have achieved catharsis and healing through her work. “I don’t think about that. I continue to write. I’ve been writing. I’ve been living in the present.” That present includes the critical acclaim of her new novel, Some Sing, Some Cry (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), coauthored with her sister Ifa Bayeza. An award-winning playwright and theatrical producer in her own right, Bayeza has been a part of the For Colored Girls journey from its incarnation as a solo performance piece, through its theatrical unfolding, to its feature film success. “[Her] being with me has been very important,” Shange intimates of her sister. “We’re only a year and a half apart. I value her judgment and her vision, and I treasure her talent. I’m able to be frank with her and she’s able to see things in my work that I don’t see or that I miss. She’s an incredible writer.”

 Coinciding with For Colored Girls’ feature film release, Scribner re- issued the published choreopoem in a hardcover Scribner Classics edition featuring elements from the iconic 1975 cover art. They also created an eBook, updated the trade paperback version (with the original cover), and came out with a movie tie-in paperback featuring the movie art on the cover. All editions include two new poems, a new introduction, as well as photos relating to the work. An audiobook from Brillance Audio was also just released in January.

This year, Shange will take her writing “back to the beginning,” when for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf returns to Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theater (a 2008 revival was canceled when a major investor withdrew from the production).

“It’s already been cast,” Shange reveals. She’ll also return to her original casting sensibility. Although the play and the film featured all black women in their respective casts, Shange emphasizes, “It was never for black women entirely. The earlier performances in San Francisco [featured] African American, Latina, and Asian actresses. Mr. Papp (Joseph Papp, founder of New York’s Public Theater) insisted on an all black cast because [a diverse cast] would baffle a New York audience. On Broadway in 2011 we plan to have Latinas and Africans in the cast.”

The For Colored Girls blitzkrieg across the genres of poetry, theatre, publishing, television, and film is also something Shange takes in stride. “I was an African studies major. I left Barnard as a person who combined history, literature, and art history in my work,” she explains. “I never experienced a separation of the genres. My work transcends barriers of all sorts because I never wanted it to be stuck.”

- Sharon D. Johnson ‘85
Photography by Dorothy Hong