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40 years later, 'for colored girls' remains painfully relevant

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Ashe Jaafaru at Penumbra Theatre
Ashe Jaafaru (foreground) and the rest of the cast of "for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf" at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.
Courtesty of Allen Weeks

A piece that is considered a classic of the black theater canon, "for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf," begins a run of performances Tuesday night at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.

And 40 years after it was written, it remains all too relevant.

Ntozake Shange, who created the work, says it's not actually a play. Shange calls it a "choreopoem" — a series of poetic monologues combined with music and movement. 

Co-director Sarah Bellamy said the pieces deal with such heavy topics as abuse and rape, while also celebrating women of color.

"The jubilance of being a little girl of color," she said, "the difficulty of being a woman of color, how the world grows you up before you're ready and how you can find joy in yourself — even through these deep, painful struggles, there's joy to be had." 

Shange wrote "for colored girls" in 1974, at a time when things like date rape were hardly talked about. Now, with the advent of the #metoo movement, Bellamy said it's a perfect time to revisit Shange's groundbreaking work. 

"When we've got men in office who talk about grabbing women by their genitalia, and nobody does anything about it, I think we still need to have the conversation," she said. 

The cast of "for colored girls..."
The cast of "for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf" at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul. Ntozake Shange's "choreopoem" combines poetic monologues with music and movement, and is considered a classic of the black theater cannon.
Courtesty of Allen Weeks

The women in "for colored girls" have no names. They are identified by colors: Lady in Red, Lady in Brown, Lady in Yellow. Khanisha Foster, who plays Lady in Blue, is in her third production of the show. Each time, she learns something new.  

"Because it is a generational piece," she said. "It doesn't just offer what happens the first time our heart breaks. It offers what happens when our heart keeps breaking. And that's interesting, because you can always come back to the play. Like I think if you saw the play 20 years ago and you feel like 'I know that play,' but this is a whole new retelling of it, based in the same beautiful text with the same gut-wrenching meanings." 

Foster said Shange's monologues explore the power of sisterhood and the resilience of women of color. 

Sun Mee Chomet, who plays Lady in Green, described being in the show as a rite of passage. She said it's a healing experience to be in a room with other women of color talking about life's challenges and celebrations. Chomet described Shange's poems as transformational. 

"It's just very powerful to have her words sit in your gut, and have to say, 'I found god in myself and I loved her — I loved her fiercely,'" she said. "For every woman to be able to say that, you have to have gone on a journey, through wondering whether or not that was true, first, and to come from an authentic place and to witness every woman in the play saying it, from whatever their life experience is, it allows you to say that for the rest of your life. So I think the play saves you, and I think it saves people who see it." 

Chomet said Shange tackles issues of depression and suicide head-on.  

"And by going there, she allows that feeling to transform into a reason to hold on, to lean on other women for support ... to realize there's still a reason to keep living and hoping and loving," she said.

A story about this show would be incomplete if it didn't include the name Laurie Carlos. She was a part of the original cast and creative team of "for colored girls" in New York; she originated the role of the Lady in Blue and played the part in the show's run on Broadway. 

Carlos eventually moved to the Twin Cities, where she deeply influenced the work of Penumbra and many other local performing arts groups. Carlos died of cancer in 2016, her legacy lives on in this production and in the many artists she mentored. 

Performances of "for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf" run through Oct. 14.