Born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey, she changed her name in her 20s to the Xhosa phrases for She who comes with her own things and She who walks like a lion.
And if you still have doubts, read her work.
Last night at the Bluford Branch of the Kansas City Public Library, a group of seven stunning actresses from the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre staged a performance of Shange’s award-winning 1975 one-act play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.
The audience – a mixed group of old-timers and young’uns – laughed out loud and murmured in agreement with many of the sentiments in the play. And if my own experience is at all reflective of the group, they got a bit misty, too, during some of the more heartbreaking passages. It was a moving experience. And it was free.
The performance was part of the Library and MET’s Script-in-Hand series of energetic and informal staged readings of American classics. As director Karen Paisley explained last night, about 15 to 20 hours went into rehearsing the performance. The set, costumes, sound and lighting were equally minimal, and much of the dialog wasn’t memorized. But with a talented group of actors on stage (or, rather, the front portion of a room), the bang-for-free-theater-buck was tremendous.
For Colored Girls is a cycle of 20 poems delivered by seven women identified only by the color of their clothing: Lady in Brown, Lady in Purple, Lady in Yellow, and so on. Mixing monologues and chorus pieces, the poems work together to create a rich, human tapestry that shows the trials and triumphs in the lives of African-American women.
The portrait is at once personal and universal.
There are few defined characters; each speaker collaborates in an overall story that unites street-level lyricism with higher thoughts and feelings.
Alongside celebrations of literature and music are meditations on poverty, domestic violence, gender issues and racial injustice.
Some of the poems are more or less narrative in form. “[T]oussaint” is an uplifting monologue about a young girl who discovers a hero in a book about Haitian slave revolt hero Toussaint L’Ouverture, only to turn around and meet a neighborhood boy named Toussaint Jones.
By contrast, “a nite with beau willie brown” tells of a man driven by ego and circumstance to commit a terrible act of violence against his own family.
Other poems are more abstract — but no less impactful — in dealing with issues faced by people who are members, essentially, of a doubly oppressed class. As Lady in Yellow says:
bein a woman & bein colored/is a metaphysical dilemma I haven’t conquered yet / do you see the point my spirit is too ancient to understand the separation of soul & gender/my love is too delicate to have thrown back on my face.
Fast-paced, cutting and beautiful, MET’s reading of For Colored Girls earned a brief but well-deserved standing ovation.
Photos by Elise Del Vecchio