Saturday, February 22, 2014

For Colored Girls... Tells Powerful Stories with Poetry and Movement

By Sharon Falduto
Photos by Len Struttmann
Cassie Liendo, Genevieve Johnson Heinrich, Heather Byrd,  Tierra Plowden,
Olivia Villela Lestrud, Shacorrie Mcbride, Iris Strong
It's amazing how much raw power seven women can bring to an intimate, sparsely decorated space.

Theatre Cedar Rapids's production For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf is in the Grandon Series, and takes place in the black box Grandon Theatre downstairs at TCR. Director Angie Toomsen chose a white flooring to offset the dark walls and the bright colors the actresses wore, which made for a striking visual as the riot of colored dresses filled the stage.

For Colored Girls... is what is called a choreopoem; a melding of poetry and choreography first created by playwright Ntozake Shange in 1975. The play is a collection of twenty poems interpreted by women who are known only by the color of their clothing--"Lady in Green," "Lady in Purple," and so on, encompassing the colors of the rainbow.

These seven women filled the stage with energy and with feeling as they told tales of love, and lust, and betrayal, and hurt. It seems that the tickets ought to come with a trigger warning: anything bad that might have happened to you as a woman, or as a colored person, or as a human being, is spoken of and acted out in excruciating detail.

The women do so much with so little--the only set piece is a round, white pedestal that moves around the stage, and the only stage properties are the color-coded scarves that the women use to symbolize the ties that bind, the ties that gag, and the lost pieces of their souls.

The rhythm of the pieces blends and segues beautifully; harrowing tales of rape and abortion are followed by lighter tales of finding the story of slave hero Toussant L'Ovuerture in the adult section of the local library. And even when the women are speaking of the unspeakable, they manage to convey their tales with heart and with some humor. "Don't tell me about sorry. I got a closet full of sorry."

Iris Strong
Shange's poetry flows back on itself, repeating phrases to hammer a point: "I USED to live in the world. Then I moved to Harlem." These actresses portray every emotion, and leaves the audience enthralled with their power and strength. The show is electrifying. It seems a shame to single out any one actress when the ensemble does such a phenomenal job of working together to create the piece, but nonetheless I can't help but recognize first-time actress Iris Strong as "The Lady in Green." Her recitation of the poem "Somebody almost made off with my stuff" was funny, and powerful, and moving as we find out that her "stuff" really means herself. Her ease with the emotional crescendo and with the fast rapping of the piece had the audience nodding its head and even snapping its fingers along with her rhythm.

The women in this piece are not walking stereotypes. They are not treated as jokes. They are seven women playing as many as twenty diverse characters, each with her own elite qualities and baser desires. It's a joy to a watch a play which recognizes that women are complicated, without trotting out any of the womanly tropes that have become so commonplace. Some updates have been put into the show since its 1975 inception; a piece that deals with AIDS clearly came along later, and I found myself wondering if the solider in the harrowing PTSD poem which provides the climax of the production originally dealt with a man who had returned from Viet Nam rather than from Fallujah.

The music accompanying the show acts as an eighth character; each piece is perfectly scored. Only once did I feel that the music went on for too long; a common complaint in a play which utilizes transitional music when changing sets, but which seemed to serve no purpose for this particular production.

Matthew R. Kerns' choreography drives the piece from moment to moment, with the women sometimes dancing slowly to their memories, or showing off their Merengue skills, or dancing with the wild abandon we associate with African tribal dancing.

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf" runs through March 15 (Ticket info here). These women bare their souls on stage each night. Be prepared to laugh, to cry, to jump out of your seat, and to feel moved to shout as these women work their way through their own rainbows.

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