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A busy city hospital might be the last place you would expect to see an assemblage of some of the finest African-American actresses of our time but Harlem Hospital proved to the perfect backdrop for a special performance of the classic choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf.
Inside the sparkling sunlit drenched Pavilion which was transformed into a white-seated performance space, legendary playwright Ntozake Shange was brought to tears as award-winning actress Adriane Lennox bellowed the famous line: “Somebody Walked Away With All of My Stuff!” The reading, which was performed in over 20 cities on June 16th, was produced by Project1Voice, an organization which promotes African-American theater and playwrights.
For Colored Girls… is celebrating four decades in production this year and Shange marveled at how her feminist inspired work has stood the test of time. “I was a very young woman when I put these poems together and I was living moment to moment. I had no idea something I wrote would be passed down to generations of women,” recalls Shange, 65. One of the original producers, Woodie King Jr., says he’s not at all surprised that new generations of women still relate to the epic work. “This piece with poetry as theater was a new phenomenon back then. It’s not amazing to me that it is still valuable and popular today,” says King.
Born Paulette L. Williams in New Jersey, Shange changed her name in 1971 after battling years of depression. In the South African language Xhosa, Ntozake means “she who has her own things” and Shange means “she who walks with lions.” Confined to a wheelchair, Shange sat front row and closely watched the actresses with a sharp eye as they paid homage to the celebrated playwright’s signature work and delivered their lines with gusto. Actresses Lillias White, Trazana Beverley, Elaine Graham, Angela Robinson-Whitehurst, Harriett D. Foy and Phyllis Yvonne Stickney joined some of the members of the original cast for the soul-churning reading that drew audible reactions from the standing room only crowd. “I think that with what’s happening in the news today, this piece is even more relevant. And now is such a great time to revisit Ntzake’s vision of reclamation and self-determination,” says Erich McCall, producer and founder of Project1Voice.
Several years ago, Ntozake Shange updated her choreopoem with dialogue about HIV to raise awareness about the prevalence of AIDS in the African American Community, which is why the event was co-produced by The National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA). “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates of the fifty-thousand new infections annually—60% of those new infections among women are Black women. So Black women are still being disproportionately impacted and hopefully this will be an additional way for us to tell the story, through art form,” says C. Virginia Fields of the NBLCA.
“I Found God in Myself and I Loved Her Fiercely!” As the performers each shouted the emotionally charged final stanza of the poem—some 200 members of the audience jumped to their feet, many with tears streaming down their cheeks. Ntozake Shange was simultaneously showered with kisses and saluted for sharing her pain through poetry and empowering women for the ages.