It's the play that inspired a generation of artists — director Djanet Sears included

The award-winning theatre artist tells Amanda Parris about bringing "for colored girls..." to Canada and how the show changed her life.

The award-winning theatre artist on bringing for 'colored girls…' to Canada and how the show changed her life

The cast of Soulpepper's production of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Directed by Djanet Sears, the show is on to June 3. (Cylla von Tiedemann/Courtesy of Soulpepper)

The first time I read Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, I was in my second year of university. As an actor, I've borrowed monologues from the play for scene studies. As a teacher, I've bought copies for my students. I've quoted it in speeches and articles, too. But I had never seen it performed — with all its intended rhythm, movement and colours — until last week. I was there for Soulpepper's opening night of the production, directed by the legendary Djanet Sears. Boasting an all-female cast and an almost all-female crew, my expectations were high. And I was not disappointed.

The show is a series of poetic monologues and exchanges performed by characters identified by the colours they wear (Lady in Brown, Lady in Yellow, Lady in Red). First staged in 1976, Shange described the piece as a "choreopoem." Movement and rhythm are threaded throughout, thereby collapsing the conventional divide between musical and drama. With a minimalist set, no chorus of dancers and no musical instruments beyond the performer's voices, all of the storytelling rests on the actors — and they are tremendous.

Earlier this week, Sears visited CBC Arts, and we spoke about her experience working on this production. The award-winning Toronto director and playwright is busy working on a new play and a novel, but she is still bursting with excitement about bringing Shange's play to life at Soulpepper. If I had my way, our conversation would have gone on for hours. (As you might have noticed from all the times I've mentioned her in this column, I'm a fangirl.) Here, she reveals why this was the right time to bring for colored girls to Toronto. But first, she shares how her own discovery of the play was a life-changing experience.

I want to know about the first time you saw this play on stage.

I just turned 18. I was in first year at York University studying theatre. There was a school trip going to New York City to see some plays on Broadway. Never been to Broadway. When I came out, I couldn't speak — not because I'd been silenced but because so much information had been put inside me. I felt that my world expanded. My sense of self expanded. She's influenced a lot of writers in my generation. The fact that she doesn't use caps — she uses lower case letters. She doesn't use periods — she uses slashes. She really tells us: be bold. You can be bold and survive, she says. 'Cause sometimes you think, "Oh, if I'm that bold, I'll never work again." It gave me strength, a confidence that I couldn't really articulate at the time. You go to school for 20-odd years and you find the work that you are being taught in the best schools is written by men and it's about men. You'll get the implicit idea that men are better at this. Not through something anyone directly says, but you do. So when a work like that comes out, it challenges that. It inspired me to add my meagre words to the body of work from black women. And when I see women, I say, "Write! Continue to write! Add to it!"

"I saw [for colored girls...] and I went, 'Oh yeah, I can write a play.'"- Djanet Sears, director and playwright

Had you considered being a writer prior to this experience?

No. I knew I was gonna be an actor. Writer? No. We need examples of how we can be in order to do it. I wish I could say I did it all by myself. No, no, no. I saw Ntozake Shange's play and I went, "Oh yeah, I can write a play." So it really gives us confidence. It speaks to a lack of confidence that was there that I did not recognize. I didn't know that I needed an example to be a writer. But I did.

Tell me about the rehearsal sessions for this production.

Our rehearsal sessions were extraordinary. In the beginning we spent a lot of time studying the text. We spent a lot of time just understanding what she means. We treated it like it was Shakespeare. Often we look at contemporary work and not do the kind of table work that's necessary. What do these words mean? Let's not just pass over — let's give them resonance. I also spent a lot of time building ensemble. I find ensemble-building exercises, especially for the very short Canadian rehearsal times, really important because the kind of energy, communication, authenticity that the people in the production can open up between themselves will augment the text. We did lots of singing, lots of movement. They were really joyful. It was really nice going to work.

This is an African-American play. What changes bringing it here with a Canadian cast and crew?

In 2010 Ntozake Shange updated the play. It gave me a clue that she was looking at not seeing this as a period piece. It's a piece for now. There's a little bit, just before Akosua [Amo-Adem, who plays Lady in Green] does [the monologue] "Stuff" [when] we do some dub, and in an American production that probably wouldn't have been in there. It was us bringing ourselves into the production. Some of it stayed the same, some of it we injected ourselves wholeheartedly in.

I made the horrible mistake of watching the 2010 film a few years ago...


On my birthday.


Yeah, it was really bad. One of the things that stood out to me was that adapting it in that way made it this story of individual women who are going through individual narratives. Watching the play I was reminded that there was no moment when any one woman was on the stage by herself. Even when one person is doing a monologue, everyone is still there bearing witness.

No one goes off stage, even though you can't see them. After the climax of the show, what is the next poem? "Laying on of hands." It's about community — community of women being one of the strategies that helps us step back off the edge. It's unfortunate that Tyler Perry didn't get that in terms of his vision. That is not what this play is about.

Did you sit in the audience on the first night?

I did. I was right in the back.

What was that experience like?

The audience was really, really great. I'm quite conscious that sometimes Canadian mainstream audiences can be reserved. [But when] you get just a tipping point of black people in the room, we're not afraid to give voice. And they gave voice! They responded to the actors in ways they hadn't been responded to in the previews. It fed them. It was wonderful. It felt like there was communication going on, from the stage to the audience, from the audience back to the stage. So there's a listening. And that's magic! It gives me chills just thinking about it.

Ntozake Shange wrote for colored girls... in the '70s, but according to Djanet Sears, the director of Soulpepper's current production of the show, "it's a piece for now." (Cylla von Tiedemann/Courtesy of Soulpepper)

What has the emotional journey been like for you?

There's a lot of prep. You go home, you re-work, you come back with a new version. Sometimes that can be really tiring. Sometimes that can be very frustrating. But a lot of times, I laughed a lot. I feel that the healing the characters go through is a healing that we all went through. It's a healing that, if you get to see the show, you get to participate in.

What does it mean to do this play now? In this climate, in this context in this moment of history.

I think it's about the boldness with which Ntozake Shange writes and speaks her words. This is not the kind of "in your mind" prose poetry. This is stuff that jumps out, is moving. I think that this piece is a form of resistance. We are not dead. We are not gonna shut up.

for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Featuring Akosua Amo-Adem, Ordena Stephens-Thompson, Karen Glave, Tamara Brown, d'bi young anitafrika, Evangelia Kambites, Sate. Written by Ntozake Shange. Directed by Djanet Sears. Presented by Soulpepper Theatre. To June 3. Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto.


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