The Author: Harriette Cole’s Interview with Ntozake Shange
I first saw the play For Colored Girls who considered suicide when the rainbow is Enuf on Broadway at the Booth Theater 1976-77. Somewhere between the dimming of the house lights for that first opening moment and the final breath on stage, I sat up on the edge of my seat and never moved. The lady in brown begins and she is followed by seven women wearing colors that expand the colors of the rainbow. Through dance, song and poetic recitation that tore at my heart, their performance drew me in as they revealed what it is that women, especially colored women, experience around issues of abandonment, rape, love, domestic violence, abortion, relationships and more. At the end, they unite for the “laying of the hands” that heal allowing them to love themselves. Powerful. Unforgettable.
When I saw the commercials promoting Tyler Perry’s film version of For Colored Girls, a host of questions peaked my curiosity, comparing play to the movie yet unseen.
Relevance: Written almost 40 years ago, the play dealt with issues that were front and center at that time. The famous case that provides legal access to abortions in a doctor’s office, Roe v. Wade, was relatively new, back alley abortions were still being performed at an alarming rate (especially in urban centers), sex was a sin and real sex-ed was rarely available. The Viet-Nam war had come to a close and the last of our troops came home to a country that had pretty much abandoned them, leaving veterans – especially those suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder – to fend for themselves. A new generation had emerged, fine-tuning its sense of sexuality, gender, equality and more.
Tyler Perry | Producer, director and screenplay writer. Best known for comedic characters such as Media, and sitcoms like Meet the Browns and House of Payne, Perry is not someone that I readily envision portraying serious subject matter, although Why Did I Get Married stepped out of the Media realm. My hope was that this would not be typical black comedic theater where boy meets girl, conflict arises, which is resolved at either a big family reunion or at a come-to-Jesus moment in Church. Could Perry pull this off? In spades. This is a masterful accomplishment by Perry and I eagerly await his next venture.
For Colored Girls, the Movie: The movie flows from start to finish. Connecting the main characters was pure art. They either live or work in the same neighborhood, and some in the same apartment building. As each women’s “story’ unfolds, their lives become more and more intertwined. The connection that is built between them takes on a subtle life-force of its own allowing them to naturally interact with each other and eventually unite as one force. I was worried that the poetic verse would, out of necessity for film, would be lost to straight dialog. Not so. Interwoven in each character’s story is just enough poetry to emphasize the scene. Awesome.
Relevance Now. Totally! The rate of HIV-AIDS continues to ravage the African American community, especially among black bisexual men and their female partners. This is deftly portrayed by the highly successful couple, Joanna and Carl Bradmore, played by Janet Jackson and Omari Harwick. Joanna is a successful publisher surrounded by people to address her every need, a driver, a pool boy, assistants, and much wealth. Her husband Carl is a stock broker but is clearly not as successful as his wife. The audience along with Joanna gradually discovers that Carl is having sexual relationships with men. Joanna confronts Carl about his affairs with men. Carl defends his sexual activity with men saying he is not gay but that he just happens to enjoy having sex with men. Joanna ends their marriage telling Carl he can have his “excuses” and his “HIV.”
We just passed “Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell.” And anti-gay groups are seeking to repeal the new law. Roe v. Wade is being challenged and anti-choice groups stop at nothing to suppress abortions and pro-choice. Sex education is still considered a sin. Rape is being redefined by the religious-right threatening to set back the rights of all women to the stone age. Divorce and rocky relationships is the norm making the complexities of abandonment common place for women and men. For Colored Girls is just as relevant now as the play was when it debuted 1970s.
I overheard someone (who has not seen the film or the play) remark that it’s probably just another chick film where a group of black women talk trash about their man, adding its just male-bashing.
My take-away. The domestic violence scene: Kimberly Elise’s character Crystal Wallace is a young woman with two small children by her high school sweet heart, Beau Willie Brown, played by Michael Ealy. Crystal is bright, intelligent and what is strikingly clear, she is hanging on to sanity by a thread. Crystal rarely smiles. She is thin,withdraw and speaks barely above a whisper in an effort to keep her world from crashing in on her.
Beau Willie Brown, the father of Crystal’s two children, emanates pure rage from the moment you first see him. He has returned from “the war” mentally and emotionally ravaged and is on medication. He fluctuates between rage and a shattered reality of who he is. Beau is violent and abusive to Crystal and their children. Crystal stays with Beau clinging hopelessly to the man he was, incapable of dealing with the reality of the man he is.
Crystal’s final refusal to marry Beau is a tipping point and in a fit of rage, Beau deliberately murders their children. He ends up in jail in what appears to be a semi-comatose state. After a failed suicide attempt, Crystal becomes reclusive. Phylicia Rashad’s character, Gilda, who is the glue and mother figure between the women who live in the same apartment building, pulls Crystal back into reality telling her that as horrible as what has happened, Crystal has to take some responsibility in order to regain her life. That’s not male-bashing.
This scene, like the rest, opens up the issue and says here are all the intricate parts that make up the sum of this situation.
Saved the best for last: References to a scene or two and the actors who portrayed the characters in those scenes in no way is my assertion of who or which scene was better than the other. Each cast member approached their character with impeccable realness. They complimented each other turning every scene into reality shared. If I talk about each one, then I will give the movie away! Get the DVD and watch this movie.
Finally, I leave with you with Nina Simone and her song, Four Women, that is played during the end-credits of the film: