For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Nomathemba (Hope)

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

There’s a marvelous show at Steppenwolf right now–a thrilling all-black production that fuses inventive poetry, tightly choreographed movement, evocative music, and sensitive visual design into a powerful, moving, politically committed work of theater.

No, I don’t mean Nomathemba (Hope), the charming but insubstantial showcase for the South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. That main-stage world premiere has plenty to recommend it, don’t get me wrong. But for gripping drama that makes a convincing statement about love, loss, and renewal, Steppenwolf’s studio staging of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf is the thing to see. Offered in the Saturday afternoon/Monday evening slots reserved for second-tier outreach shows, this is a production of uncommon grace and beauty, with a script still startlingly fresh 20 years after its premiere–proof that the best shows aren’t necessarily the ones with the highest profiles.

Controversial at the time it opened because of its anguished, scathing perspective on male-female relations in the black community, For Colored Girls is a landmark work of American theater–an uncompromisingly raw yet exquisitely poetic outpouring of what its opening lines proclaim to be “dark phrases of womanhood,” built around the theme of women’s need to love themselves before they can share their lives with men. Developed by poet Ntozake Shange and various collaborators in a cross-country series of performances in bars, cafes, and fringe theaters, it finally caught the attention of New York producers who brought it before increasingly “mainstream” audiences: the work marked a breakthrough for black and feminist theater in the mid-1970s. Without for a moment soft-pedaling such topics as rape, abortion, and domestic violence, Shange’s script transcends the victim-art genre that it helped spawn because of its dramatic specificity: the need for healing and self-affirmation is proclaimed in a series of crisply detailed, beautifully structured verse stories related by seven women who, while representing an archetypal “rainbow” of urban black womanhood, also emerge as sharply defined characters. The tales they tell chart their emotional evolution from childhood infatuations to adolescent sexual experimentation to troubled adult relationships–including failed affairs, abusive marriages, date rape, and finally a grim account of child murder as pertinent as (and far more vivid than) the reports of domestic atrocities that spill out of the newspapers each week.

Yet For Colored Girls isn’t a rant fest: it’s a complexly patterned, subtly shaded tapestry of dance, song, and beautifully idiosyncratic language that generates a deeply satisfying sense of redemption and renewal. It doesn’t just preach its themes, it brings them to life–that is, if it’s performed effectively. Steppenwolf’s exceptional revival–directed by Leslie Holland and Lisa Baer, brilliantly lit by Jay Venzke, and propelled by the wonderfully restrained jazz accompaniment of percussionist Regina Perkins and reed player Matana Roberts–is one of those rare productions in which all the elements seem to breathe together: extremely precise coordination between actors, musicians, and the design and tech team results in a show that feels like an organic, living being. Virtually every moment is carefully choreographed–not just the dance sequences but the spoken monologues. Yet the staging is so in tune with the text that the actors’ movement seems spontaneous. The superbly chosen cast–Nanette Alexander, Crystal Barnes, Teresa Blake, Bernadette Clarke, Magaly Colimon, Maura Gale, and La Tonya Hagans, a magnificent seven in Molly Reynolds’s lovely floor-length dresses–are individually and collectively breathtaking in their nuanced renditions of the script’s dreamlike metamorphoses of emotion. High points include Clarke’s hilarious, poignant piece about a little girl’s crush on Haitian hero Toussaint-Louverture; the exquisite Barnes recalling the shame of an illegal abortion; and Gale’s devastating rage and horror in the climactic monologue, about a woman terrorized by her Vietnam-veteran lover. But every actor has her moment to shine as she finds the gritty drama within the stylized poetry of Shange’s script; and in any case, the most stunning aspect of this stunning show is its perfectly modulated ensemble playing, some of the best you’ll see in this or any other year.

It’s easy to see why director Eric Simonson invited Shange to write the script for Nomathemba, which Simonson conceived as a follow-up to The Song of Jacob Zulu, his 1992 collaboration with songwriter Joseph Shabalala. Based on a song Shabalala wrote for Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the ten-man a cappella vocal group he fronts, Nomathemba shares with For Colored Girls the theme of sexual betrayal and disappointment; and it aspires to a similar fusion of dance, music, and drama. Well, two out of three ain’t bad: Black Mambazo’s distinctive singing, with its haunting mix of dense bass tones and wonderfully airy high harmonies, is complemented by tightly choreographed unison dancing that emphasizes heavy stomping, high kicks, and fluttery outstretched arms. Simonson, a gifted director, has repeated what he accomplished in Jacob Zulu: he’s coached a disparate group of South African, New York, and Chicago performers into a seamless ensemble, who here explode in a series of joyous, colorful dance episodes staged by Shabalala, Chicago choreographer Kenny Ingram, and South African actor-dancer Dumisani Dlamini. The numerous passages of movement and music in Nomathemba are vastly entertaining, but they’re padding, not the crucial components they were in the much more powerful Jacob Zulu.

As a folk drama proselytizing hope for the future as the cure for past suffering, however, Nomathemba just doesn’t cut it. Shange’s script repeatedly editorializes, insisting that an overfamiliar love story serves as a metaphor for the uncertain but promising future of postapartheid South Africa. Nomathemba, the symbolically laden title character (played likably if shallowly by Broadway actor Vanita Harbour), gets fed up with the limited possibilities of her small farming village and with being taken for granted by her feckless fiance Bongani (played with an initially interesting but eventually tedious blend of braggadocio and insecurity by Ntare Mwine). When Nomathemba leaves home for Johannesburg and Durban, the cities that beckon to South Africa’s newly mobile black population, Bongani realizes the depth of his feelings for his betrothed and follows her. Both have predictable problems and adventures–he’s robbed, she’s nearly raped–before they reunite at home, ready to settle down and raise a new generation of free blacks.

Prosaic at best and pretentious at worst, the libretto fails exactly where For Colored Girls succeeds: in linking the personal and the political, the sexual and the social, into a convincing portrait of human need. Nomathemba bashes us over the head with the Important Message behind its lightweight plot; it might be more believable if it simply told its pretty little love story and left it up to the audience to discover the underlying meaning. Despite some attractive performances–including those by For Colored Girls’ Bernadette Clarke, quite funny as the city slicker who takes Nomathemba under her wing; Dumisani Dlamini as a raffishly charming robber; and the gently charismatic Shabalala as a sort of guardian angel–none of the characters comes off as anything other than a stereotype placed onstage to illustrate a point rather than live a life.

Which leaves an audience eager for yet another noisy, exhilarating dance number or one of Black Mambazo’s beautifully blended ballads. Nomathemba is pretty to look at: Loy Arcenas’s set features a woodcutlike backdrop of the sprawling South African landscape, and Karin Kopischke’s costumes juxtapose bold, traditional animal-skin outfits with plain modern work clothes to reflect South Africa’s divided nature. And it’s wonderful to listen to. But it doesn’t support much thought: I doubt that Shange’s script will have the long life of For Colored Girls. That work, drawn from her own experience, was written with a mission; Nomathemba feels like it was just written for the commission.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Brasilow.