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Tyler Perry Takes on 'For Colored Girls'

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A room full of actors are giving playwright Ntozake Shange a standing ovation. It's the final day of filming for Tyler Perry's adaptation of Shange's award-winning play, "for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf," and the cast and crew are paying homage inside Manhattan's Avatar Studio. Their applause fills every corner of the space in which they have gathered for one last call. The 62-year-old poet and author appears humbled as she responds with a respectful nod. She congratulates the actresses on their work and expresses her heartfelt gratitude for their participation in the film. "It was magical," Kerry Washington, one of the movie's leading ladies, said later. "Just remembering it makes me want to cry. It was our final moment of togetherness." And oh, what a moment it was. Shange's seminal work, now in theaters, brought together what may well be Black Hollywood's finest ensemble cast. In addition to Washington, Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise, Whoopi Goldberg, Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose and Tessa Thompson all take star turns in the film. (Macy Gray, in a pivotal cameo role, leaves audiences shaken by her scene-stealing performance.) And that's just the women. Michael Ealy, Omari Hardwick, Hill Harper, Khalil Kain and Richard Lawson round out the all-star production, which is helmed by Hollywood's man of the hour: Tyler Perry. At the center of all that blinding wattage, Perry aims to do justice to the well-loved play, first staged in New York City in the mid-1970's. He has a lot to prove. He's faced criticism his entire career, most notably from Spike Lee, who has implied that Perry's work is "coonery and buffoonery." Perry recently told a live audience that Lee should "do the right thing and leave [me] alone." But after it was announced that the man behind Madea was directing the film of the iconic play, he fielded criticism from every quarter, including The New Yorker and entertainment blogs, which challenged his ability to reinterpret a story that has served as a lifeline to Black women in search of sisterhood. Can a brother get some love? POETIC JUSTICE Thirty-four years ago Shange's profound work called women in droves to New York City's Public Theater to experience the powerful off-Broadway production. "for colored girls" was an unflinching portrayal of what it means to be a Black woman in America. In the play, Shange boldly tackled issues of rape, domestic violence and promiscuity through 20 searing poems recounted by seven nameless Black women, each represented by a vibrant hue. Of the production's 1976 Broadway debut, ESSENCE wrote: "When the curtain came down, Black women in the audience wept openly, for onstage they had finally seen an image of themselves that showed not just the strength or anger but also some of the vulnerability and the pain. The theatrical perspective of Black women would never be the same." The play would go on to garner Tony, Obie and Drama Desk awards as it became the Black woman's gospel, with Shange our appointed evangelist, the theater her church, the stage her pulpit, the audience her congregation and the deeply felt verse, her bible. "The play 'for colored girls' came out during the golden age of Black women's writing," explains Paula J. Giddings, the Elizabeth A. Woodson 1922 professor of Afro-American studies at Smith College and the author of "Ida: A Sword Among Lions." "This was a time of Black cultural nationalism. We were struggling to find the balance between pride and the celebration of the race, of our survival, of our militancy, and the fact that there were these violent things happening to us at the very hands of those we were praising. Ntozake helped us find the balance that was needed to keep us whole." Because of the play's rich legacy and numerous stage and screen revivals across the globe (a 29-year-old Alfre Woodard starred in the 1982 PBS production), fans, critics, celebs and bloggers feared the worst when it was announced that one of our most revered theatrical experiences would be in Perry's hands. Last April The New Yorker wrote: "There's cause for alarm in this: he will likely emphasize Shange's sentimentality, rather than her force or her feminist radicalism." Even Shange confesses she had reservations when she heard Perry would direct. "I was frozen in my tracks because I don't like slapstick comedy; I was a little wary of it," she says. "But I've seen the film and I'm 85 percent happy with it--and that's a lot!" TYLER'S TAKE In 2008 Lionsgate was approached with adapting for colored girls for the big screen. Nzingha Stewart was slated to direct, but then Tyler Perry's 34th Street Films signed on to produce and Perry was asked to step in a year later. (Stewart now serves as an executive producer of the film.) Initially he declined, content to stay in the backseat as producer. "I knew how sacred Ntozake's work was to so many," he explains. But the gentle nudging to lead the project from Lionsgate president of production, Mike Paseornek, ultimately changed his mind. "Here's the thing," Perry says. "People think you can only do one thing. But I thought long and hard about whether I could really do this. If I had any reservations I would have continued to decline." Paseornek has no doubt that Perry's vision will resonate with audiences. "The one thing I've learned in making 11 films with Tyler is he defies gravity and I would never bet against him," he says. "Whatever he does, it's going to be exceptional." Paseornek has witnessed Perry's influence firsthand. Once, while on a public set for the film with Perry in Harlem, he watched as an aspiring female singer connected a mic to a loud speaker, then stood belting out a song, making sure the director could hear her every riff and falsetto. Other passersby started vying for their own chance at stardom, but as quickly as pedestrians turned that street into Amateur Night at the Apollo, they demanded silence once Perry's cameras started rolling. "In all my years of film production, I've never seen anything like this," says Paseornek. "We didn't have to do or say anything when it was time to film because Perry's fans took care of everything. People have a respect and reverence for his work." That's the thing about Perry. He connects with his audience and manages to make magic out of dust. Imagine what he can do with Shange's gold. Lionsgate executives believe so much in the project that the studio bumped up the film's original January 2011 release date by two months so that it could become a contender for a 2011 Academy Award. In response to this vote of confidence, Perry humbly passes on the praise: "There hasn't been a film with a cast of Black women like this since 'Waiting to Exhale,'" he says. "It would be something special for these phenomenal actresses to receive that kind of recognition and celebration." WOMEN'S WORK There's no question that "for colored girls'" monologues have offered many budding thespians a chance to shine. For the stellar cast of Perry's adaptation, Shange's words still ignite the spirit both professionally and personally. "It's not about issues ever being totally resolved; it's about how we get the muscle to deal with them and how well we pass on the wisdom to the next generation with more success and greater speed," says Thandie Newton, who stars as Tangie, the tortured, raging fire who is the Lady in Orange. "The issues are never going to be eradicated. It's part of the human experience." Actress Kimberly Elise can personally attest to the power of the project: She says her role took a real-life toll. She plays the earthy Lady in Brown, whose war-torn boyfriend and father of her two children is responsible for the couple's unfolding tragedy. "The truth of this woman's life was emotionally brutal," she says. "When I finished the production, I left there with gray hairs that I didn't have before because my body and spirit didn't know that I was pretending." Although "For Colored Girls" is clearly women's work, the male ensemble performs its fair share of tense drama: Omari Hardwick, who stars as Janet Jackson's henpecked husband, says his character reveals the vulnerability of a Black man "who is stuck between the life he wants to live and the life he thinks he's supposed to live," while Michael Ealy does the unthinkable as the veteran Beau Willie. For his role Ealy was so disturbed by his character's actions that he sought his mother's permission before taking the part. "Sidney Poitier once said he never wanted to take a role that his parents would be ashamed of," he says. "I thought of the dark places my character had to go and I spoke to my mom about it. I told her my part creates a bigger conversation about post-traumatic stress disorder. She gave me her blessing." The men in the cast are quick to diffuse the criticism that "For Colored Girls" is two hours of man bashing. "It's not a commentary on Black men and not every man in the film is wronged," Ealy says. "As actors it's our responsibility to bring multidimensional characters. If you don't see yourself on-screen--good. But if you do? You have to be accountable for yourself. I hope that's how people will try to look at this film." On the rooftop of Pier 59 Studios at New York City's Chelsea Piers, the ladies have just finished enjoying a luncheon hosted by Perry. Next up is the formal cast photo. Donning gorgeous gowns that represent the colors of Shange's heroines, the women are camera-ready and regal. There is a love in the air as Shange positions herself with an outstretched hand that Jackson instinctively grabs. On cue, Elise, Goldberg, Rashad, Rose, Newton and Washington form a circle around the playwright, a visual rainbow of sisterhood. "This film isn't just for colored girls," Rose reflects later. "Yes, these are stories for us by us, but what woman hasn't allowed a man to turn her inside out? I want this film to awaken people to the power of Black actresses. I want people to know there are things that Black women go through that aren't slavery or hip-hop. I want people to know Black women as Americans. And yes, it's scary to want these things, but I want them all--for us."
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