It’s been more than four decades since Ntozake Shange introduced theater to a new genre — the choreopoem — with her battle cry of a debut, “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.” But Leah C. Gardiner’s new staging at the Public Theater, which opened Tuesday night, proves just as vibrant as the many-hued dresses of the seven-woman ensemble (the striking costumes are by Toni-Leslie James).
Shange’s verse remains a force of nature, both conversational and lofty, and the themes she explores are by turn universal and piercingly particular, from the challenges of race and gender in American society to losing one’s virginity in the back seat of a Buick.
The poet and playwright, who died last year at age 70, kept updating her most popular work throughout her life and this production features several new or reworked poems. It also gets a boost from new music by Martha Redbone and choreography by Camille A. Brown that borrows freely from modern dance as well as collegiate stepping.
It would have been tempting to dip “For Colored Girls” in amber and present it as a relic of its ’70s origins — or to try to dramatize its stories with a more literal interpretation, as Tyler Perry did in his star-studded, but misguided 2010 film adaptation. But Gardiner and her talented performers are interested less in preservation than in reclamation, in recasting this material for a 2019 audience.
The actresses are uniformly excellent, but the standouts here include Sasha Allen, whose soaring gospel-tinged voice threatens to shake the rafters, Adrienne C. Moore, an Earth mother whose expressive face recalls Leslie Jones in how it speaks volumes even when her mouth is silent, and Jayme Lawson as the red-clad woman who delivers a gut-punch of a monologue about one climactic night in a horribly abusive relationship.
Sad to say, Shange’s paean to the plight of black women in America remains just as relevant today as it did in 1976 — even if the shared bonds of sisterhood help to ward off the feelings of alienation and isolation. As Moore says at one point as the Lady in Yellow, “My soul is too ancient to understand the separation of soul and gender.”