By Kim Solga
I was running late, as usual. The lobby was packed – opening night packed.
I quickly spied my date for the evening, my friend and colleague Naila Keleta Mae, and we shared a quick hug before I braved the crush to find the box office.
Immediately something felt different.
I didn’t feel like I was in a theatre lobby – certainly not the lobby of an established professional theatre in downtown Toronto.
I felt like I was on the TTC.
The folks around me were young and old. A fairly equal mix of white and black, among plenty of others.
Maybe more black than white. Lots of artists and friends of artists, of course (opening night…), but also a strong feel of a few different communities coming together to share a public space, full of joy and excitement.
This was my introduction to Djanet Sears’s spell-binding, remarkable, evocative production of Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.”
The play was first produced in December 1974, and it premiered on Broadway in 1976. It is now a canonical work of African American theatre, and an essential piece of African American feminist performance.
Shange calls this work a “choreopoem”: it is a non-traditional, monologue-driven work that seamlessly blends dance, singing, testifying, astonishing amounts of laughter, and a strong dose of heartache as it gives voice to seven black women who have experienced various forms of abuse from male partners alongside the driving undercurrent of systemic racism in mid-twentieth-century America.
The play does not shy away from describing rape, from telling in detail of its brutal aftermath, from prying open the pain and rage that ghosts domestic abuse both emotional and physical. It culminates in a performance of unthinkable trauma for one of the women, handled with the most breath-stealing gut-wrench I’ve ever experienced in a Canadian theatre by actor-poet d’bi.young anitafrika. (I felt like d’bi was reaching into my body, pulling me toward her, even as the women around her were pulling her back out of the darkness. I was frozen, but somehow still fully there.)
Hers was not the only standout performance, however.
Seven gorgeous, insanely talented women, inhabiting powerful black bodies of different shapes and sizes, take the stage first in a movement sequence that morphs easily into a sweet and funny (and maybe even familiar) narrative of one young woman losing her virginity, fighting off another for her boyfriend. (They laugh, even as they fight, and so do we.) This sequence morphs easily again into a delightful game of double dutch with hopscotch on the side.
The actors become one another, aged differently, then become each other, fluidly; their devotion to one another’s bodies and stories, astride the pain they share in their individual monologues, produces an ensemble that becomes quickly a community, and more: this is a community that loves and fights, but always stays alive together.
These characters, these performers, are doing this for history, maybe, and for us, maybe, too. Above all I suspect they are doing it for themselves – which is exactly as it should be.
There’s been a lot of talk in the press recently – including in Intermission magazine, and in my own most recent review for Stratford Festival Reviews – about what it means to practice diversity on stages across Toronto today.
I introduced this review with my subway-lobby view not so much to invoke that talk, but to put some pressure on it.
Where does blackness – especially female blackness – fit into the diversity discussion ongoing?
Naila and I talked about this issue over drinks post-show, when she reminded me that as we surge forward with our focus on the multiplicities of diversity we risk erasing conversations not yet had about racial difference in this country. (IntermissionMagazine.ca has hosted reflections on this issue too)
Thinking critically about gender and sexuality, ability and ethnicity is essential, but thinking critically about race, and about our national relationship to racial hate on both sides of the Canada/US border, is also essential – and is separate from that first labour, though not divorced from it.
Sears’s production leaps into exactly such a critical conversation precisely because it does not appear to be “about” diversity, “about” race or gender, or even “about” racial violence at all, even though it is framed by every single one of those things.
It’s not an attempt, in other words, gently to coax an audience into a conversation.
Instead these things – the cast’s sameness (seven black women) as well as its diversity (seven very different black women, with very different histories, careers, and communities); the cast’s blackness; the cast’s femaleness – are presented by Sears and her (multi-racial) team simply as given.
Race is a given here. Racial violence is a given too. Sexual violence is a given. Each woman does not just offer her story; she demands a hearing. She (re)lives the story in her body, and when it becomes too much her peers on stage come to hold her, to take her in arms and lay on hands, to bring her body back to life so that her story can also live.
From us in our seats, Sears asks engagement, listening, imbrication. The cast invites us into their community as though we were always there, as though we need to be there. That means we are always already present in our response-ability to them, not as their consumers but as their witnesses.
The TTC-style opening night audience hooted and howled with laughter at regular turns, cried out and applauded the hardest, as well as the most beautiful, individual cast work. They were present, engaged, ready to just be with Shange’s – with Sears’s – women.
Naila told me later that this had been a very different audience from the one she’d encountered at a preview performance a few days earlier. That audience had been quieter, more reserved. More traditional, maybe more mainstream. More Canadian, we might say, rolling our eyes.
It’s a reminder we’ve yet got work to do, insisting audiences come with the show, rather than the show coming, all too politely, to them.
This show is nothing if not delightful, beautiful, powerful work.
But it’s also nothing if not impolite. For that alone, it must be seen.
for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf
By Ntozake Shange, Directed by Djanet Sears
Soulpepper, until May 31
Kim Solga is a Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Western University, where she teaches in the Theatre Studies major and minor program. Her books include: A Cultural History of Theatre in the Modern Age (2017),”Theatre & Feminism”(2015), and “Performance and the Global City”(2013). She writes about teaching, performance, and activism at The Activist Classroom.
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