In the first five minutes of late artist Ntozake Shange’s masterpiece, for girls of color who have thought about suicide/when the rainbow is insufficient, a character appeals to testimony and recognition :
sing a black girl song
get her out
to know itself “
for Girls of Color, as a work, is the answer, a creative canon work that blends poetry and movement, along with other storytelling elements, to illuminate the lived experience of black women. First conceived in 1974, the play is rightly revered as one of the theater’s most important plays to date, but also for its unquantifiable influence.
More than three decades after it aired on Broadway in 1976, the first Broadway revival for girls of color was launched, directed and choreographed by Camille A Brown, the first black woman to direct and choreograph a Broadway show in 65 years. The most recent series earned seven Tony Award nominations, including Best Revival of a Play and Best Direction of a Play for Brown.
Brown’s connection to girls of color dates back to childhood, when her mother would repeat the phrase “don’t let anyone take your things away,” in reference to a monologue featured on the show by lady in green. Brown, whom Shange interviewed for his first posthumous work Dance We Do, is now directing the show’s first Broadway revival and is thrilled that audiences can experience Shange’s timeless work.
“Even though the show is over 40 years old, it’s still about today, and it can still tap into and connect with black women, but other people as well,” Brown said.
for Girls of Color follows a cast of black women – lady in red, lady in orange, lady in blue, lady in yellow, lady in green, lady in brown, and lady in purple. The seven are scattered across various cities, woven together by mutual stories of love, grief, pain, and other elements of black femininity.
“These women are definitely going through hardships, but they persevere and they get through them. That’s what is [an] important and empowering part of the show,” Brown said.
Cutting down for girls of color at a play is an oft-repeated mistake. The lodestar piece is not just a culmination of monologues braided together in theme. Rather, for girls of color… is a chorepoem, “a combination of all forms of theatrical storytelling,” said Leah C Gardiner in a 2019 New York Times interview. Gardiner directed a revival of the show in 2019 at the Public Theater in New York.
As they tell their stories, the women dance and stomp, laugh and cry as individuals, yes, but also as a herd. Almost no story is shared in complete isolation, with even singular anecdotes receiving snaps and “mms” from the women on stage, tints of empathy and community care dotted throughout.
But amid the show’s tragedies, girls of color also embrace a levity often missing from depictions of black femininity. Humor is central to Shange’s work, with Brown using schoolyard games that many black women will find familiar, references she also infuses into her 2015 work. Black Girl: language gamea reference part for this assembly.
“We go through ghosts,” Brown said in reference to embracing joy in Shange’s piece. “We go through pain, but we also go through joy, and there’s so much in a poem that goes from feeling like it might be low and painful, but then a recovery happened.”
To trace the origins of girls of color, you have to go to Bacchanal, a feminist bar near Berkley, California. In December 1974, Shange shared short readings of his poetry, as dancer Paula Moss danced to musical accompaniment. Influence of the Black Arts Movement and his time Sonoma State College Women’s Studies ProgramShange channeled her own personal essays into a fusion of dance, poetry and music that were the building blocks for Girls of Color.
Later, Shange’s poetry readings expanded to include five other women who choreographed to Shange’s lyrics.
“We were a little raw, embarrassed [and] eager. Everything we were discovering in ourselves had been going on among us for almost two years,” Shange told the Washington Post in a 1977 interview.
After a run in the Bay Area, with Shange’s penned work sparking niche interest, Shange and Moss traveled to New York’s Studio Rivbea, a jazz performance loft, to perform the dance-poetry. There, a version of the show, more structured as a play, was prepared and staged at the Public Theater near Broadway, before having a Broadway performance in 1976 at the Booth Theatre.
Then and now, girls of color are mostly seen to provide rare and authentic insight into what it means to be a black woman, “a metaphysical dilemma,” Shange wrote. Written and performed by black women, for girls of color to lay bare the truths at the devastated intersection of misogynoir, not as a teaching tool for white audiences, but for black women to see the full extent of our experiences on stage.
“It wasn’t about trying to teach people who [these] women are. It was about creating a safe space for black women to hold each other and express who we are and how we interact with each other,” Brown said.
Brown added, “It’s the voice of a black woman, and black women see reflections of themselves.”
For Girls of Color also inspired a generation of black theater makers, especially black women playwrights who embraced Shange’s unabashed truth and dedicated attention to black women.
“She was very encouraging to black women to appreciate the wholeness of themselves and to speak from their point of view, without trying to fit into someone else’s structure,” said playwright Ngozi Anyanwu in a 2018 interview with The Times.
In the middle of the show’s early closingBrown says she encourages audiences to see the production while they still can and be touched by Shange’s work.
“I was hoping people would see it as a movement and a text working together to share these very important, very vulnerable, very spiritual and ritualistic stories,” Brown said.