What are the social responsibilities of art? Are artists morally obligated to try to improve the societies in which they work, or is the only goal worth striving for ‘art for art’s sake’? These questions have been challenging artists of all sorts for millennia, and have provoked a wide spectrum of creative responses. In the arts, abstraction and political relevance are not necessarily opposed to one another, and some have tried to create highly stylized works that still convey a clear message to the audience.
One such work is Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf,” which confronts the racism and sexism faced by African-American women in an experimental form of performance poetry. This play, combined with its unofficial sequel “for black boys who have considered homicide when the streets were too much” by Keith Antar Mason, forms the basis for Jon E. Gentry ’07’s adaptation “for colored girls / for black boys.” Despite its abstraction, the new production by BlackC.A.S.T. manages to convey a rare emotional intensity. Under the direction of Rachel V. Byrd ’13, it starkly demonstrates the problems facing modern African-Americans while still remaining hopeful.
“for colored girls / for black boys,” which ran in the Adams Pool Theatre from March 3 to March 5 as the finale to Harvard’s 2011 Black Arts Festival, is structured as a series of monologues delivered by unnamed characters. In this regard it is similar to “The Vagina Monologues,” but with a much broader scope: along with women’s issues, each vignette is a meditation on various challenges faced by the African-American community. These range from rape to racism; they also include more personal issues like relationship problems.
The show was brilliantly acted, and the cast managed to portray each vignette as both an individual unit and as part of a larger whole. This in itself is challenging, but the ensemble also faces the dilemma of expressing a whole range of emotions without the aid of dialogue or character development. Despite their namelessness, each character was fully fleshed out. Their segments were self-contained while still providing a sense of continuity.
The real standout in the show was behind the scenes. Byrd left the stage totally barren in terms of scenery, and filled the space with her cast instead. By taking advantage of her actors’ physicality—in one monologue an actor literally flung himself around the stage and off the banks on the side—she gave them total freedom to put their emotions in tangible, visible terms. Physical theater like this is right on the cutting edge of modern theatrical practice, and Byrd effectively integrates this new style into her production.
“for colored girls / for black boys” also made creative use of music and dance. Many vignettes were framed by hip-hop and rap tracks, and some even incorporated music into the actual monologues. One segment is a meditation on the power of Nina Simone’s music delivered in highly rhythmic poetry. It uses internal rhyme and repetition to create a speech structurally similar to a song. In another scene, music played over a monologue was used to create a nightclub setting. The music pulsed with the delivered lines to complement the emotional peaks and valleys of the scene.
Although most action was on the main stage, the performers also made good use of the sides of the old pool as well as the iron girders that hold up the ceiling. Two monologues took place on the stairwell behind the audience. The liberal use of the space complemented the bare physicality of the production. It allowed the audience to concentrate on the emotional and psychological aspects of the play without being distracted by superficial details.
“for colored girls / for black boys” was a very rare piece of theater. It was challenging but unexpectedly funny at the same time. It was expressed through poetry, but the characters delivering the lines were ordinary people that we can relate to with no trouble. Its apparent internal contradictions make this a hard work to pull off, but the cast embraced these nuances and created a bold and compelling show.
—Staff writer Noah S. Guiney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.