Danica Jones in Joburg Theatre's production of 'For Colored Girls'
Danica Jones in Joburg Theatre's production of 'For Colored Girls'
Image: Supplied

In an interview with APB Speakers, American poet and playwright, Ntozake Shange spoke of how the incipience of her iconic work, “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf”, was part of the fabric of the politics of the time. The play — a collection of poems based on her life and the lived experience of black American women - was published in the ’70s. A time when “SA was not close to being an apartheid free SA and Angela Davis was in and out of jail when the piece was first performed in California,” she said.

For colored girls” was shaped from Shange’s beginnings: poetry readings in New York nightclubs and working with musicians. It is how she met SA musicians, Ndikho and Nomusa Xaba and asked them for an African name when she rejected her given, Paulette (after her father Paul) as patriarchal and Williams as a slave name. Ndikho gave her Ntozake (Xhosa for she who comes with her own things) and Shange (Zulu for she who walks like a lion).

This context validates artistic director James Ngcobo’s insistence on commemorating the American Black History Month (February 1 to March 1) in SA as a way to honour and engage with black diasporic connections. Staging plays by Black American writers is a cultural tradition that Ngcobo started in 2014 during his time at the Market Theatre and continues at The Joburg Theatre where he now leads the artistic programming.

He is directing “For colored girls” as the 2024 Black History Month production for the theatre. Shange — who died in 2018 - coined the pioneering play a choreopoem because it is embodied poetry performed with dance movement and music. It comprises about 20 poems performed as a series of poetic monologues by seven women. Subjects of love, oppression, empowerment, pain, abortion, Aids, loss and depression are highlighted. Shange admitted to having attempted suicide four times, inspiring the title of the play.

Of her work she has said, “I write for young girls of colour, for girls who don’t even exist yet, so that there is something there for them when they arrive.”

For colored girls” finds SA on its 30th year as a democratic republic, characterised by endemic rape and femicide, among other sociopolitical issues. Young girls are not spared. Some are depressed and anxious, awakening to the meaning of generational trauma.

Its relevance is that it centres the lived experience of black women and while some things have changed, some remain the same.

“Being alive and being a woman is all I got but being colored is a metaphysical dilemma I haven't conquered yet” - a line in the play goes.

Thuto Gaasenwe in Joburg Theatre's production of 'For Colored Girls'
Thuto Gaasenwe in Joburg Theatre's production of 'For Colored Girls'
Image: Supplied

The work has been passed down through generations, giving permission to black women to own and tell their stories. Its legacy laid foundations for voices from Staceyann Chin, Lebo Mashile to Warsan Shire to exist. And it continues.

The tone of the choreopoem moves in waves that are optimistic, playful, vulnerable and searing in an idiosyncratic language.

Ngcobo works with these elements for an urban and soulful staging. With a rotating and moving stage, the use of multimedia, a DJ set and a considered soundtrack, he gives Shange’s words a tender landing. Lulu Mlangeni’s poetic choreography fills her ellipses. The youthful cast delivers and each has their moments of strength.

The main objective for this SA debut of “For colored girls” is to attract school audiences with the performances included based on the set books that are part of their curriculum. The production is one to see for the opportunity to wander through the mind of a visionary writer in a live setting and be moved.  

“For Colored girls” is on at The Joburg Theatre until March 3. 

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