‘For Colored Girls’ Review: Ntozake Shange’s Women Endure

Their individuality was always undeniable. But in their latest appearance on a New York stage, it’s clear that their combined strength is what has made these women so vital, so enduring.

There are, technically, seven title characters in “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” Ntozake Shange’s milestone work of theater from the mid-1970s. But in Leah C. Gardiner’s loving, collective embrace of a revival, which opened Tuesday at the Public Theater, seven also equals one.

Such mathematics are of course essential to any ensemble performance, where interdependence is a given. Yet the team of actresses here, channeling what Shange called a choreopoem, takes onstage symbiosis to a radiant new level of both reliance and defiance.

Their lyrical soliloquies may find their characters in extremis. But don’t ever think that they’re helpless in their vulnerability. These women always, but always, have one another’s backs.

And as you watch a show that begins tentatively but keeps swelling in confidence, you realize that their number isn’t limited to seven, or more than twice that, if you count the all-female creative team. Legions of unseen others stand behind them. That includes the many actresses who played these parts in earlier productions, the women who inspired their stories and the female relatives of the cast members, whose faces are printed on their dresses, created by Toni-Leslie James. And of course, Shange herself, who died a year ago and who contained multitudes.

“Colored Girls” was one of the most unexpected theater hits to emerge from the chaotic 1970s. First performed in bars and clubs, it found a more fixed home in New York’s Henry Street Settlement Theater, before moving to the Public Theater in 1976 and then, in short order, to Broadway, where it ran for 742 performances.

Mainstream theatergoers had seen nothing like it. Shange’s free-form text was neither linear nor literal in its depiction of black women struggling to claim their own voices from a society that had either ignored or actively silenced them. “Bein’ alive and bein’ a woman and bein’ colored,” as one character says, “is a metaphysical dilemma I haven’t conquered yet.”

Often they spoke in lush and startling metaphors — about the confusions of girlhood, the salvation of music and, above all, the men who used and abused them — and moved with hypnotic urgency. (“We gotta dance to keep from dyin’,” one says.) They were identified only by the hues of the dresses they wore, as in Lady in Red and Lady in Purple. And the term “colored girls” was neatly sprung from any patronizing racial context.

Despite the rich specificity of its language, the play has proved surprisingly malleable in subsequent adaptations, which include a starry 2010 film by Tyler Perry. The last time I saw “Colored Girls” onstage — in 1995, with Shange directing — the palette of names had been changed (to shades like aqua and rose), and there were references to newly topical subjects, including AIDS.

Gardiner’s version dispenses with those revisions. The text used here rearranges some of the original material. Other poems by Shange have been added and set to sensuous music by Martha Redbone, hauntingly sung by the siren-voiced Sasha Allen, as the Lady in Blue.

But what’s most striking about this incarnation, which is choreographed by Camille A. Brown, is its pervasive sense of women talking to — and being deeply invested in — one another, as if in an eternal support group. It’s a sensibility that starts with its circular stage (Myung Hee Cho did the set, lighting is by Jiyoun Chang), which seems to exert a centripetal force, repeatedly pulling the performers into a single huddle.

Not that the form of the individual monologues has been jettisoned. But while I remember “Colored Girls” as a series of vivid star turns, this version feels like an endlessly fluid collaboration. Some of the separate pieces have been divided, so that more than one person speaks them — or in the case of the balletically graceful deaf actress Alexandria Wailes, signs them.

The individual narratives, many of which were drawn from Shange’s personal experiences, are often dense and elliptical in their imagery. And especially in the early sections, meaning is sometimes muddled.

Other, later monologues land with an impact that shakes the house. They inevitably include the harrowing, climactic piece about a young mother in a disastrously destructive relationship (performed with scalding intensity by Jayme Lawson).

But I was also blown away by Okwui Okpokwasili’s declaration of independence to the unnamed lover who “almost walked off wid alla my stuff.” It’s a great, trenchant piece of writing, irresistibly insistent in its repetitive accusations. But Okpokwasili knows just how to calibrate its quickening cadences.

Throughout, you’re conscious of how all the performers — the others are Celia Chevalier, Danaya Esperanza and Adrienne C. Moore — are so completely there for the actress speaking. They snap their fingers and occasionally murmur in affirmation. If need be, they’ll step in to offer physical support, to prop up another woman if she seems overwhelmed or drained.

They more or less enter dancing, by the way, in a prefatory passage that has them stretching their muscles, finding their grooves and loosely establishing a common physical vocabulary, as if in a workshop. It seems fitting that the show’s exhilarating high point isn’t a single soliloquy but a great, luminous coalescing of everyone onstage.

This boisterous epiphany begins with one woman’s declaration, “My love is too delicate to have thrown back in my face.” The others join in, with a panoply of adjectives that define the incalculable worth of their love: It’s “too beautiful,” “too sanctified,” “too magic” to ever be taken for granted.

Their voices meld, their bodies tumble and tangle together. And sisterhood becomes a single hydra-headed, multitongued entity, invincible and indivisible. God help the man who dares to cross it.

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

Tickets Through Dec. 1 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; 212-967-7555, publictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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

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Ben Brantley is the co-chief theater critic for The New York Times. He has been a staff critic since 1996, filing reviews regularly from London as well as New York. Before joining The Times in 1993, he was a staff writer for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

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