Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf has reopened at the Public Theater in New York City to rave reviews.
I first saw for colored girls in 1976 after my friend Carolyn Broadaway, who was visiting me in the city, insisted that we must see it.
Here is what I wrote about that experience:
Each of the three times I saw for colored girls performed on Broadway and each of the many times I read it or heard it performed [on the original cast album] on my stereo, I have felt chills of recognition up and down my white woman’s spine—shocks of recognition that tell me that something deep within me has been unlocked as I hear my experience voiced. (103)
At that time, I was deep within “the experience of nothingness” shared by many other women who have had their voices silenced or who have never even formed the words that might name their experiences. I wrote of this problem in my book Diving Deep and Surfacing.
Women’s stories have not been told. And without stories there is no articulation of experience. Without stories a woman is lost when she comes to make the important decisions of her life. She does not learn to value her struggles, to celebrate her strengths, to comprehend her pain. (1)
Ntozake Shange was one of the women who gave me the story, who gave me the stories, to make sense of the life I was living. In my first book I wrote a chapter-long analysis of for colored girls, the first extended literary critical examination of Shange’s ovular work. In honor of the re-opening of her play, I share the words I wrote when I, like Shange, was a young woman struggling to find the words that would enable me to chart a way through and beyond the nothingness that threatened to envelope me.
For colored girls opens with with a poem spoken by the lady in brown about the importance of naming and celebrating experience in song and story:
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
. . .
The poems in for colored girls, when taken as a whole, describe a spiritual journey through the particularities of a Black woman’s expeience. In this journey the alternation of joy, despair, and reconstitution of self proceeds circularly, musically, rather than linearly. Shange’s women move through hope, defeat, and rebirth in several of the poem sequences, until in the last the lady in red experiences a crescendo of despair that leads to a dramatic rebirth of the self and a more certain awareness of the self’s grounding in the larger powers of life and being. (103)
. . .
The lady in red breaks the silence with her cry, “i was missin something.” Her cry reminds everyone of the loss of her children. The other women deepen her cry, adding, “something so important,” “something promised.” The lady in blue finally names what is missing—“a layin on of hands,” to which the other ladies respond, “strong,” “cool,” “makin me whole,” “sense,” “pure,” “all the gods comin in to me/layin me open to myself.” These words describe the sensations felt in a laying on of hands, an ancient healing ritual. . . The ladies explain that a laying on of hands is not sex with a man, or a mother’s comforting touch, but a touch in which powers larger than the self are channeled into the one being healed. The laying on of hands ritual affirms the self’s position in a community and in the universe, and suggests to her that sne is not alone, that other humans—in this case other women—and the very powers of being support her life and health. The laying on of hands in a community of women celebrates the power of sisterhood and sharing as one of the keys to a woman’s moving through the experience of nothingness.
In the last poem, the lady in red describes how a woman . . . moves through nothingness to new being. Having contemplated suicide, this woman “fell into a numbness,” but a mystical experience in nature brought her back to life:
The only tree i cd see
took me up in her branches
held me in the breeze
made me dawn dew
that chill at daybreak
the sun wrapped me up swingin rose light everywhere
the sky laid over me like a million men
i waz cold/i was burnin up/a child
& endlessly weaving garments for the moon
wit my tears.
. . .
Shange’s lady feels the connection between her rhythms of being and those of nature. Like Shange felt after her experience with the rainbow, the lady in red could conclude, “we are the same as the sky. We are here, breathing, living creatures, and we have a right to everything.”
The final words of the lady in red, which are picked up and sung gospel style by the other women, are an incredible affirmation of her power of being: “i found god in myself //and i loved her/i loved her fiercely. These words express the affirmation of self, of being a woman, of being Black, which is at the heart of for colored girls. This indeed is the “righteous gospel,” the “song of her possibilities,” which the lady in brown called for at the beginning of the choreopoem.
. . .
[T]o the black woman raised with pictures of a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus, Shange’s affirmation of the God in herself is a revelation of a new way of viewing the world and being a woman. To say ‘I found god in myself//and i loved her/I loved her fiercely” is to say in the clearest possible terms that it is all right to be a woman, that the Black woman does not have to imitate whiteness or depend on men for her power of being. This affirmation is a clear vision of new being on the far side of nothingness. (115-117)
Ntozake’s words saved my life and many lives.
This is a new naming of the sacred. This is a woman’s spiritual quest.
Ntozake Shange, pictured, plays the woman in orange on the original cast album
Page numbers from Diving Deep and Surfacing; page numbers for quotes can be found there.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who will soon be moving permanently to Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.
Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.