For Colored Girls... first arrived on the scene in December of 1974—coincidentally, just a few months before I did. Accordingly, I’ve never known a world not colored with For Colored Girls...; if Ntozake Shange’s “choreopoem”—only the second play by a black woman to reach Broadway—was a moment of awakening and recognition for my mother’s generation of black women, it was an innate point of understanding for mine. Like black gay vernacular, I’m amazed by how many of Ntozake Shange’s “dark phrases of womanhood” regularly circulate through my daily speech and thoughts.
Though maybe it’s not so amazing, given that being alive and being a woman and being colored is a metaphysical dilemma many of us are still trying to conquer, isn’t it?
With Shange’s unexpected death last October came an outpouring of both grief and gratitude; particularly from the black female creative community. There also came a renewed interest in her work—such as the January re-release of her 1998 book of essays and recipes, If I Can Cook, You Know God Can: African American Food Memories, Meditations and Recipes. But few knew the 70-year-old writer was actively involved in producing new work at the time of her death; namely an upcoming book of poetry, I Am an Old Woman, due out on Grizzly Peak Press on June 18.
Full disclosure: I had the honor of being asked by Grizzly Peak to write the foreword for this new volume; Atlanta-based artist Charly Palmer was personally requested by Shange to create the cover art. Like Shange herself, I Am an Old Woman seems prescient in exploring what it means to age into an evolved life—and the inevitable awareness, changes and losses that ensue. As Michael Monson, head of artist management for Grizzly Peak, shared with me, perhaps Shange was more intuitive than we imagined, as she she often called the volume her last (as yet unpublished work notwithstanding).
“In the brief time that I had the opportunity to work with Ntozake, one of the touchstones that we would discuss was her gratitude for publishing her final work,” Monson explained, via email. “There would always be a pause, and I would explain that I was the one who was truly grateful for this opportunity. A sense of space and a sense of place, that now extends to the revival of her masterpiece For Colored Girls...”
Monson was referring to a revival of Shange’s seminal work at Chicago’s Court Theatre, the professional theatre of the University of Chicago. In perhaps the first professional staging since Shange’s death, the production is fortuitously directed by actor-director Seret Scott, a member of For Colored Girls...’ original Broadway cast.
In fact, Scott replaced Shange in the role of “Lady in Orange,” the night after the production opened at New York City’s Booth Theatre, when the playwright called in sick. As Scott told The Glow Up, Shange (fondly known as Zake by friends and associates) had reportedly been reluctant to star on Broadway in the first place, preferring to remain primarily a writer and spoken word artist. While Scott was barely prepared to step into the role on that second night—not yet knowing the blocking or having a costume—even at that early stage, she sensed the enduring power of what Shange created.
“I thought it was stunning,” Scott recalls. “I just hadn’t heard anything like what Zake wrote for women like myself. So, it was, for me—just even learning the lines—I had to really sort of dig deep into what was really going on [there], because it was not literally on the page. It was coming from somewhere that had so many facets to it, and so many levels, and so many reasons for things; and along with that, it was so simple, in the way that she was able to express these things. So, it sort of hit the heart really quickly, and I really felt that.”
Scott remained in the role of “Lady in Orange” for nearly a year. Over 40 years later, she returned to the work last fall, when she was enlisted to direct the Court’s production—an opportunity she calls as “serendipitous” as her original arrival at the material. Naturally, she turned to the source, reaching out to her old acquaintance Shange.
The two spoke several times last year as Scott began to cast the production and prepared to introduce the work to a new audience and generation. Unbeknownst to many, Shange had updated For Colored Girls... over the years, specifically, changing references to the Vietnam War to Iraq, and adding mention of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which the initial poem preceded. Ultimately, she deferred to Scott’s choice to keep the original references, most of which were set in and around the 1960s and relied heavily upon the once-seamless blend of black and Puerto Rican culture on New York City’s Lower East Side.
“She said to me at that time, ‘Seret, if you want to do the original, I am fine with that,’” Scott explained.
Instead, the two compromised on an adding an eighth character and live music to the traditionally seven-woman performance piece. While the 20-poem script remained unchanged, the new role was inspired by the talent of local actress-blues musician Melody Angel (who, coincidentally, had a similar role created for her in the nearby Goodman Theatre’s 2018 production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home from the Wars). Though a departure from Shange’s original intent, Scott felt Angel’s inclusion would immeasurably enhance the production.
“And [Shange] said ‘absolutely,’ which was kind of wonderful,” Scott recalls. “Then I said, ‘Well, what will we call her?’ And Zake said, ‘Lyric. Let’s call her Lyric.’ She said it right off the top of her head, which was even more wonderful. And I said, ‘Well Zake, what color is she going to be?’ And she said, ‘She’s the rainbow,’ as if I should’ve already recognized that.”
Scott laughs. “And that’s exactly what [Lyric] is. She’s the one who encompasses all of the stories.”
It was the last conversation the two had, making plans to meet soon after to further discuss the poems. Shange died about two weeks before the two were due to see each other for the first time in decades.
“Frankly, I was stunned, because the last time I spoke with her, she was so coherent and thoughtful and everything,” Scott says. “It was unbelievable, for me.”
For those of us intimately familiar with the original, the addition of the eighth character was surprisingly seamless in the Court’s production, which is regularly punctuated with song and dance from several members of its multi-talented cast. On a set that evokes an ancient Greek amphitheatre-meets-abandoned subway line, Shange’s ladies once again come to life, and as striking as they are individually, what audiences are inevitably left with is the deeply moving power of the community they create; a deliberate choice on the part of Scott.
“The community of women is something I’ve worked on a lot; and it feels like they’re there together. They understand, and they are talking about their stories, and their stories resonate with all the other women. So, I think that the community is the thing that is different about this [production],” she says.
“We had community in the first one, in that we were the first black women to be up there telling stories about our lives and ourselves,” Scott continues. “But this is just a little more ‘you are my sister’ than perhaps that was—I think there [are] more people walking in now and recognizing us as people, whereas I don’t feel like a lot of that was going on back then—in the country, [or] in the communities, even.”
In keeping Shange’s original script intact, Scott also educated her mostly millennial cast on the era—though ironically, many of the same issues (reproductive rights, sexual harassment and acquaintance rape, racial divisiveness) are still at forefront of our collective conversations. The resonance of this new production speaks to the timelessness of Shange’s words. For Scott, in particular, it has been a deeply moving experience.
“It’s been a real emotional journey, and I did not expect that,” she says, near tears.
The Court’s production closes with a tribute to Shange; the cast places rainbow-striped roses upon the stage before turning to acknowledge the playwright’s name, illuminated above. On opening night, the audience was already on their feet by this point, in praise of the powerhouse performances packed into the 90-minute production. To further honor Shange, the theater is hosting a series of curated community events titled “Beyond the Rainbow,” in tandem with the production’s run through April 14.
It’s a more than fitting tribute to an revered talent—and a revival that honors the enduring impact and relevance of her work.
“But, to me, it’s less of a revival than a confirmation,” Monson says. “Ntozake will forever be a part of my life, although small, and I was very fortunate for the shared experience.”
As a colored girl, I couldn’t agree more.
The Glow Up tip: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf is in production at the Court Theatre through April 14; tickets are available here. Ntozake Shange’s I Am an Old Woman will be published on Tuesday, June 18.