Ntozake Shange's 'For Colored Girls,' And Why Tyler Perry's Maligned Version Might Deserve a Little Credit
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.
So it’s not surprising that there have been so many different iterations. Tyler Perry isn’t the first director to bring the work to the big screen. In 1982, the Broadway Theater archive released its highly dramatized version starring Shange, Lynn Whitfield, and a young Alfre Woodward as Lady in Red. The work was produced by Lindsay Law and directed by Oz Scott. And the soundtrack starred none other than Aretha Franklin belting out the words to Nina Simone’s classic “Four Women.” It’s a moving adaptation, undoubtedly popular. And it’s probably starkly different from its onstage predecessor. For one, it’s largely missing the choreography. But, of course, it has to. Like many things, movement doesn’t translate as well across forms. And in the quest to popularize the work’s general sentiment to larger audiences, certain things inevitably have to be compromised.
That’s a tough pill to swallow. Sure, there’s laughter, and beauty, and light. But it’s a story whose dramatic arcs involve a backroom abortion, domestic violence, and beautiful babies being thrown from tenement windows. Anyone who can relate to those pains has understandably earned her right to be protective of it.
There’s still something troubling about someone, anyone, profiting off of the pain of black girls. And it’s especially unsettling when that someone is a man who’s made a fortune masquerading as a badly decontextualized one. But whatever the critiques—and there have been many—the fact that we’re talking about this work 36 years later as a feature film, and possibly an Oscar-winning film, means something. It means there’s a market, yes. But it also means that for all of the complaints that the work is melodramatic and too heavy-handed, people still need to hear and see it. Black women have still got to fight to love themselves, and each other. Shange’s enduring legacy shows that it’s okay to celebrate that. And it’s also liberating for the world to acknowledge that battle still exists.
So while I’ll admit to sometimes proudly riding the bandwagon of Tyler Perry haters, a part of me can’t help but concede that his adaptation is an enviable, even necessary, part of a story that’s still being written, all in an effort to unravel the centuries-old myth that black women’s lives aren’t worth sharing. Those often painful stories are still being told because they’re still being lived, and no director—be it Perry or a female artist with 10 times more nuance—will have the final say.