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The pain of being black in America, especially in the #BlackLivesMatter era, could not be more relevant to the themes in Theater Alliance’s repertory productions of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf and Word Becomes Flesh. Both performances take to task the scars left behind from the experience of being a person of color in the U.S.
The overarching theme in these productions is the relationship between the black man and the black woman, and two single-gendered casts approach the topic from different angles. The all-female cast of for colored girls—the original was published in 1975 but this production is based on Ntozake Shange’s 2010 update—explores themes women of color still grapple with today: abandonment, domestic violence, street harassment, abortion, and black women’s broken relationships with black men. Word, performed by an all-male cast, addresses topics ranging from the absence of black fathers to the fear black fathers have in raising a black man in America; the overcrowded prison system; overcoming the “nigga mentality” of the hip-hop generation; and beyond.
View these pieces in tandem, and whether or not it was intended, it becomes clear that the pain of being black in America is also the result of unrequited relationships between black men and black women. It’s a subtle reminder that we, black feminists and black masculinists, have held onto these unspoken truths (that black women are “difficult” or “bossy,” that black men think being in a relationship with a non-black woman is “easier”); that they’ve been around for centuries but still require resolution. With respect to African-American literature, these truths have been written about from each gender’s perspective but not collaboratively. For example, when it was originally written, Shange’s “choreopoem” did not include male dialogue, allowing the female voice to speak out without being challenged. And Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s piece—he said he was inspired by Shange’s work—does the same for its male voices. What was missing in these two pieces was the interpersonal dialogue about male–female relationships: the problem, the pain.
But the activists behind #BlackLivesMatter, a movement Word touches on, are not seeking to have a one-sided conversation. The goal instead is to bring awareness to institutionalized inequality through not only protest but dialogue. Put simply: Folks want to be heard. The same thing can be said for the gender dynamic in these two poetic narratives—if the all-female or all-male cast only dialogues with itself, the painful stories shared among the same sex, neither side will hear the other. This is either the irony or brilliance in how these two plays were staged: in turns holding up a mirror to reveal how black men relate to black women and how black women perceive black men.
The common thread is how the stage transformed for more than two hours into a rhythmic playground for both ensemble casts. Dramatically timed choreography in both pieces highlighted the syncopated lift of poetic dialogue, especially in Word. The brilliant lyricism (“every day begins with a black man on the run” and sharp takes on hip-hop tropes, like “call him big poppa but he’s not ya fatha”) left the audience in reflective silences or earned laughs.
The ensemble cast sails through a set of songs, dances, raps, and spoken word performances with none of the actors—Louis E. Davis, Chris Lane, Clayton Pelham, Gary L. Perkins III, or Justin Weaks—leaving the stage for a significant period of time. Instead, they work as one family, each playing a vital role choreographed seamlessly. The poetic expression is flawlessly timed, but some of the themes of the black father–son relationship feel repetitive.
Weaks (Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, Darius & Twig) is worthy of particular mention. His physicality as an actor during the “nigga mentality” scene (about the vicious cycle induced by centuries of slavery and how that past is carried through to the present) let him fully emote the frustration and pain of self-loathing that can hinder anyone’s full potential. In front of the audience, Weaks’ character becomes his own worst enemy. This soliloquy was truly the heartbeat of the two pieces.
That director Deidra Starnes’ production of for colored girls featured some laughter through the women’s pain was a relief. The humor brought a refreshing sense of realism to a piece often staged as dark, oppressing, and melodramatic. In Tyler Perry’s 2010 adaptation for the screen, each character, named for one of eight colors (“Lady in Red,” “Lady in Purple,” “Lady in Yellow,” etc.), deals with mentally and physically debilitating topics including date rape, domestic violence, abandonment, homosexuality, and a back-room abortion. In other words, there was no light in the story. The film received mixed reviews.
In this production, seven women, each hailing from a different majority-black metropolitan city in the U.S. (Brooklyn, Chicago, D.C., Hampton, Va., Atlanta, etc.), tell their own painful story for the first time in front of one another and the audience. The story from each color is interwoven into the next, sometimes with a musical or dance transition, or a bit of ad-libbed banter between the women. Notably, Starnes, who performed in Shange’s off-Broadway production, uses Latin-themed music in one of the stories, sprinkling in the occasional ode to D.C.: At the end of a scene, emotionally exhausted, Naomi LaVette’s Lady in Purple says “Girl, we goin’ to Matchbox to get a cocktail.”
But there are subjects like heartbreak that are not just painful for black women to discuss. Natalie Graves Tucker delivers an honest and transparent performance as Lady in Red, the woman who would not let all of her “stuff”—or self—be taken by a man unless she was ready to give it up.
The play concludes with each actor taking back the allegorical pain of being a woman of color, with an uplifting message that although there are struggles only girls of color face, they won’t be consumed by what they confessed—instead, they leave it on the stage. It’s a lesson all audience members, no matter their race, can relate to. Ultimately, the themes these two plays illuminate, and the parallelism of watching both sexes’ pain on stage, work well in tandem, reminding us that whether it’s the 1970s or 2016, the experience of witnessing and learning from the struggle matters.
2020 Shannon Place SE. $25–$35. (202) 290-2328. theateralliance.com.