America was a very different place in 1976, the year that Ntozake Shange debuted her poetic play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf."
At the time, the play’s format and subject matter — seven black women telling their stories of sexual awakening, abuse, rape, abortion, infidelity, courtship and the bonds that are forged between them — was groundbreaking. In 2018, the material is not only still relevant but urgent, a powerful reminder that women of color are still ignored and mistreated by society even as the #MeToo movement sweeps through the halls of power.
The production of “For Colored Girls” by local theater company Art Forms & Theatre Concepts for this year’s Piccolo Spoleto festival is a straightforward and powerful presentation of the play. The seven characters are named after colors that correspond with both the hues of their dresses and their temperaments; for example, Lady in Red is consumed with passion, while Lady in Blue expresses sadness and pain in each of her stories.
When one of the women is speaking, the others remain on stage, occasionally interrupting to question the speaker. In this way, “For Colored Girls” becomes a conversation, as opposed to a series of monologues, which helps reinforce the underlying message that these experiences are universal, not individual.
The material is very demanding on the seven actresses, who whisper, scream, sing and cry their stories. Some of the actresses are more powerful performers than others: Trinvella Wizzard-McKinnon, who plays Lady in Red, gives the breakout performance, stealing the show during the penultimate scene in which she tells the story of her PTSD-afflicted boyfriend repeatedly assaulting her and her children. This story, which was updated in a 2010 version of the play to include references to the Iraq War, has increased relevance in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which sought to address many of the same systemic failures Shange first wrote about in the 1970s.
The ensemble cast makes the most of the few moments in the text when they come together, including a brief musical interlude built around repetition of the word “complicated,” but the play is at its most affecting when one woman is telling a story and the others are allowed to simply react. In these moments, we feel the power of both individual experience and collective empathy, and we are reminded that the social problems stretch deep into our history.
Additional performances are scheduled for June 8, 9 and 10 at Footlight Players Theatre. Go to piccolospoleto.com.
Reviewer Isaac Napell is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.