(This review appeared in The East African 3rd-9th August 2013 under the title Young, Gifted, Black and Female)
“I found God in myself and I loved Her fiercely,” is the mantra, sang in a cappella, that ends the performance of For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When The Rainbow is Enuf, by Ntokaze Shange, that opened at Phoenix Theatre on Friday 19th July, directed by Mumbi Kaigwa.
Kaigwa brings the play back to Phoenix in reminiscence of her first performance in the play, twenty-six years ago (1987), at Braeburn Theatre and a year later at Phoenix Theatre.
The play- a series of twenty choreographed poems- is performed by seven ladies, each known by the colour of her dress, evoking the rainbow.
It is about women in America but is essentially about being a woman.It begins and ends with Lady in Brown (Muthoni Hunja) who is ‘outside Chicago’. Brown is not a colour in the rainbow but is the colour of the ‘coloured woman’. In her poem, she reaches out to the other girls: “Somebody, anybody, sing a black girl’s song… sing about her rhythms…”
Mkamzee Chao Mwatela plays the fun-loving and playful Lady in Yellow who is ‘outside Detroit’ and who “gave it up” (her virginity) in a Buick, seemingly, from peer pressure. She was the only virgin, she says in her poem, “so (she)hadda make like (her) hip waz inta some business”.
Lady in Purple (Njeri Ngugi) is ‘outside Houston’. Ngugi steals the show with a sterling performance when she recites of the poem Sechita, to which Lady in Green dances.
Mumbi Kaigwa is Lady in Red who is ‘outside Baltimore’. In the poem Beau Willie, Lady in Red tells the story of an abusive husband, messed up by the Vietnam war, who eventually throws their two children off their fifth-floor window. It is a heart-wrenching story at the end of which Kaigwa- and in consequence, the audience- dissolves in tears.
Lady in Green (Kawira Thambu) is ‘outside San Francisco’. She recites Somebody Almost Walked Off Wit Alla my Stuff, which is perhaps the one poem in the play that would universally resonate in any woman’s heart. Some scholars argue that Shange brings out her own character in Lady in Green essentially because of this poem.
Thambu gave a beautiful and memorable performance of this poem.
The poem Toussaint, well-performed by Hunja, reflects, like Shange is, the intelligent and well-read Black American.
The bi-racial Lady in Blue who is ‘outside Manhattan’ is played by Mo Pearson, the daughter of Mumbi Kaigwa and another veteran of Kenyan theatre, Keith Pearson. Lady in Blue’s father says he thinks he’s Puerto-Rican. She talks about rape and abortion and the poem Sorry expresses exasperation of men’s endless apologies.
Lady in Orange who is ‘outside St Louis’is played by Hana Kefela. Just like Lady is Yellow, she is fun-loving and full of life, but more passionate. (Orange is, after all, yellow with some red in it.) However, pain twists her love and zest for love. She is now the vengeful seductress, who lures men to her bed and kicks them out in the middle of the night just to hurt them, (“I wanted to be a memory, a wound to every man arrogant enough to want me. I am the wrath of women in windows fingerin shades”) after which rather than being victorious, she is more aggrieved.
Ntokaze Shange, born Paulette L. Williams, changed her name in 1971, after recovering from a depression that led her to attempt suicide. Ntokaze, a Xhosa word meaning ‘her things’ and Shange, the Zulu word for ‘a lion’s pride’ formed the name that defined her new identity: “I didn’t bring anythin’ but the kick and sway of it, the perfect ass for my man and none of it is theirs this is mine, Ntozake ‘her own things’, that’s my name now give me my stuff.”
Though born, in 1948, to well-educated, upper-middleclass parents, growing up with such visitors to her home as renowned jazz musician Miles Davis and civil rights activist W. E. B. Dubois, it was none-the-less a racially segregated America that Shande grew up in.
It is easy to see, from the racism she endured as a child in the all-white school that her parents insisted that she attend and the bitter end to her marriage in her early adulthood that led to the attempted suicide, why and how her oeuvre combines the dual theme of racism and feminism.
© Anne Manyara 2013