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Ntozake Shange's 'For Colored Girls,' And Why Tyler Perry's Maligned Version Might Deserve a Little Credit

The Atlanta director took on the classic choreopoem to consternation and mixed reviews. But as Shange's legacy shows, black women will always be the rightful storytellers.
 
 
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It took me years to finally read Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. And it wasn’t because I was lazy, or frightened, or particularly uninterested. I grew up in a family made up almost entirely of black women and often wondered why my folks often got the shortest end of the stick. But for years, I thought the play’s significance had been appropriately summed up in my first visual introduction to it: a Kodak picture of my older sister, at 15, standing in front of the play’s poster.

Taken two decades ago, the picture catches my sister in a moment when she’s sporting a side ponytail with an oversized yellow T-shirt. She’s smiling, with her tongue out, and has got her brown arms on her hips and is rolling her eyes upward, playfully annoyed by the persistence of the person behind the camera. Directly behind her is Shange’s poster, with a portrait of the playwright’s mournful face beneath a yellow headwrap, with the book’s title written above in vibrant rainbow-colored cursive.

The picture is ironic for several reasons, the most important being that my sister was shot and killed not too long after it was taken. Suffice to say she chose the wrong night to walk down the wrong street with her best friend to the corner store, and got in the way of a kid with terribly bad aim. Her playful smile contrasts deeply with Shange’s knowing frown, but it’s an appropriate contrast, a tragic sense of foreboding on which to map some of my family’s history. In the photo, my sister couldn’t have known her days were numbered, or that 1990 was a particularly bad year to be young and black in an American city. But there she is, smiling, skeptical, and, most importantly, alive.

It’s moments like these that I imagine have made Shange’s work so enduring over the years. Though I could barely pronounce her name and was largely unfamiliar with her exact words, I knew that it was terribly important to have nearly written into existence that colored girls often hurt in unimaginable ways, and are sometimes fortunate enough to live and tell their stories.

I didn’t finally read the play until last year, and while I skimmed through some, and wished at other parts to see it in all the movement and color that was intended, there were other parts I couldn’t deny. When Shange writes, “Being alive, being a woman, being colored is a metaphysical dilemma I have not conquered yet. Do you see the point?” I do. And so do many others, because they live that dilemma every day.

That gets into why Shange’s original work is so important. It’s one of the first widely recognized treatments of the pain and beauty of being a black woman in this country. Much like the catalog of work often associated with it—Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Toni Morrison’s Beloved immediately come to mind—it centralizes the beauty of black womanhood while powerfully arguing that pain and struggle are essential to it. What sets Shange’s work apart is its ambition, and dynamism. It’s a choreopoem, a work of art that relies equally on poetry, color, and movement to convey the complicated reality of life inside a black woman’s body. That form sets it apart in several ways, by at once making itself more accessible to large audiences and also working as a deeply political metaphor. The poems are meant to be seen, heard, and felt on the street, on stage, and on screen. It’s aggressively inserting itself into the literary cannon, haters be damned. Shange’s even written about the early days of performing the play for free in cities across the country with a constantly shifting cast of performers who each brought their own stories along. It was then, and still is, a work in progress.

 
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