Playwright: Ntozake Shange
At: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Tickets: 773-753-4472; CourtTheatre.org; $50-$74. Runs through: April 14
Ntozake Shange's death in October, at age 70, unleashed an outpouring of tributes from Black women playwrights who found inspiration in her work, including Pulitzer winners Suzan-Lori Parks and Lynn Nottage.
The latter noted that Shange's groundbreaking 1976 "choreopoem," For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, meant that young Black women previously alienated from mainstream theater "suddenly saw representation of themselves in a very honest way and understood that they could occupy that space for the first time."
In Seret Scott's searing and soaring production of For Colored Girls at Court Theatre, Shange's words weave a tapestry of pain, defiance, joy and renewal, all delivered by a cast of eight women who not only occupy the space but reclaim it for Black women whose voices have been ignored or disparaged. Courtney O'Neill's seta curved wall with crumbling archwayssuggests an ancient ruined amphitheater. But the stories these women bring to life through Shange's 20 poems and their own embodied musicality aren't ancient tales, but urgent and ever-timely dispatches.
One of the enduring ironies of Shange's piece is that although the women are identified only by the color of their dresses ( beautifully designed by Samantha C. Jones ), they are multidimensional in ways that too many Black women in narratives crafted by non-Black writers are not. Scott's production adds a character known as Lyric ( Melody Angel ), who fittingly adds to the inflections of Shange's words and Leah Casey's rhythmic choreography through drum and guitar accompaniment. ( Casey also plays Lady in Purple. )
The stories range from playful tales of youthful sexual and romantic adventures to raw stories of rape and other violence. AnJi White's Lady in Red gets the climactic darkest tale and holds nothing back. It's simultaneously horrific and hypnotizing.
Shange, like Alice Walker, was criticized for portraying Black men as abusers, but there are plenty of moments here where the spark of attraction between women and men provides a window into escape. Patrese D. McClain's Lady in Brown tells us about meeting a young Black man who provides a real-life substitute for her idol and imaginary spirit guide, Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture.
Conversely, Melissa DuPrey's Lady in Blue laments that she "used to live in the world, but now I live in Harlem"her life now defined by "six blocks of cruelty piled up on itself" that constrain the dreams she carries, while her memories of a primal connection to the ocean are mocked by the dirty puddles on the streets.
In an era in which the phrase "vote like Black women" has become a cri de guerre for the resistance, Shange's piece and Scott's staging remind us that Black women in the United States have been fighting their own battles for centuries. It's not their job to save usbut we damn well better start listening to them.