For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow IS Enuf

The backstory of how a 44-year old concept found a home at Five Towns College.

Illustration: Janell George

By Gillani Peets

On the Night of November 1st, 2019, a crowd assembled in unison to witness a testimonial performance spotlighting eight African-American women. A first of its kind for Five Towns College, the venue in which the performance took place, the college welcomed alumni, family, professors, students, scholars, and paying theatregoers to a once-in-a-lifetime event. Some entered the building that cool autumn night, wondering how eight students could revive a beloved 1970’s classic for an audience unfamiliar with the material or the historical background regarding said performance. Others entered reassured, without seeing a preview or video advertisement, that they would be a spectator to a thrilling production.

As guests headed to their seats, prominent black vocalists filled the air. From Anita Baker's passionate romantic enchantment in “Sweet Love” to Aretha Franklin's demands for visibility in “Respect.” From TLC's acknowledgment of self-worth in “No Scrubs” to Lauryn Hill's ageless message of sexuality in “Doo Wop (That Thing),” the music was a precursor for the audience's theatrical experience. This performance was created for black women, originated by black women, celebrating black women (through triumphs and tribulations), and undoubtedly, stars BLACK WOMEN.

Backstage, nerves began to foray upon the female-driven cast. A year-long journey of putting forth their state of mind and vulnerability had resulted in a nearly sold-out theatre, anticipating manifestos of being a black woman in a male-dominated atmosphere. As emotions reached a high and as showtime grew closer, the stars and their director collectively prayed, to remember where they've been and where they were heading.

"My sisters, I thank you. I appreciate you. I see you. I love you. Ashe," the cast chanted.

Minutes later, the lights grew dim, the music faded out, and then, the 75-minute performance commenced.

"My sisters are ready!" Mere seconds after the announcement, free-form jazz blared throughout the theatre, a vicious, bold, in your face sound, with each note succeeding the one prior. The female cast ran down the aisle onto the stage and battled forces that withheld their lives through the imagery of rising and falling, embodying the emotional trauma that continuously hovers over black women. Beauty and imperfections. Love and heartache, friends and families. In the first minutes, without dialogue, the performance let the audiences grasp first-hand the unpredictable experiences African-American women encounter daily, the good and the bad.

Minutes later, in finely colored wraps, the eight females projected their hometowns, saying anyone could make it. Theresa Coleman (Lady In Brown, Uniondale); Khenedi Daniels (Lady In Orange, North Carolina); Destini Fell (Lady in Red, Harlem); Shadae Graham (Lady in Pink, Huntington); Laniece Lebron (Lady in Yellow, Hempstead); Tiera Summers (Lady in Blue, Brooklyn); Bria Walton (Lady in Purple, Queens); Kiana Wilson (Lady in Green, Freeport) all proclaimed in unison, "This Is For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf"!

The story, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Enuf, begins with its author, the laureate Ntozake Shange.

Ntozake Shange, born in 1948 under the name Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey, came into a revitalization period for African-Americans.Shange was raised in a six-person household and was the eldest. Sister Ifa Bayeza, would become known for her Edgar award-winning play, “The Ballad of Emmett Till.” Bisa Williams, the youngest, would become known for being an ambassador to the Republic of Niger during the Obama Administration. And their only brother, Paul T. Williams, Jr., was an executive director of the Board of the Dormitory Authority for New York State. Their parents, Paul T. Williams and Eloise Owens Williams, respectively, a surgeon and a professor focused on social justice, moved to St. Louis in 1953, causing a shift in Shange’s environment. A studious child in her youth, Shange came into the mid-south at a time when Brown v. Board of Education strangled the idealistic beliefs for a majority of white southerners. As a result of the court’s ruling, Dewey International Studies Elementary School would be the genesis and early influence on Shange’s writing, where she constantly experienced physical and verbal assaults by classmates based upon the color of her skin.

Five years later, the Williams family returned to New Jersey. Attending Trenton High School, she recalled the experience in The New Yorker with writer Hilton Als in 2010. “I was chastised for writing several obituaries for Malcolm X, exploring different aspects of his writing. One teacher in particular told me, “Didn’t I think I was beating a dead horse?” and dismissively threw my paper on my desk. The others {teachers} just sort of turned away from me in terms of friendship and support.”

After graduating with honors from Barnard College (one of the oldest liberal arts female colleges available to female students), Shange moved to California to complete a master's degree. Throughout the next several years, she would change her name from Paulette Williams to Zulu figures Ntozake (meaning 'she who comes with her own things') and Shange (meaning 'one who walks like a lion'). Shange earned her master's degree at the University of Southern California while marrying and annulling from her first husband, and tried multiple suicide attempts stemming from ongoing depression. Taught African-American studies and women’s studies at a variety of colleges in Southern California, she became entranced by a plethora of works by black women such as Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Toni Morrison, who were all a part of the black female liberation movement where blackness became recognized beyond the shadows.

For Shange, the point when she knew she wanted to express what it meant to be a colored girl in America is when she saw a rainbow while driving along Highway 101, and recognized that she had to live, tell stories, and particularly tell the stories of black women in America. After this moment, For Colored Girls came into fruition as a series of poems connected to seven women, nameless, only defined by their colors.

Performing the poetry at local California bars and cafe, her sister Ife said, “What you have here is theatre, Ntozake.” Reluctant to move out of these spaces, Shange took the poems to New York City under her sister’s advice, and in a year, had a residential spot at The Public Theatre. Performing the poetry alongside six other actresses, Shange would term "choreopoem" to describe what audiences were witnessing. A phrase unbeknownst to many would drum up interest from future Five Towns’ Chair of the Theatre Department, Dr. David Krasner.

Dr. David Krasner (Photo: Gillani Peets)

While walking the streets of New York City, Krasner ran into an old college friend, Rise Collins. The Carnegie Mellon graduates caught up for missed time, with Collins inserting during their conversation that she was currently in a crafted choreopoem performance. Krasner couldn’t miss the opportunity to witness this innovative, unprecedented concept. A blend of dance, music, and dramatic performance, the term “choreopoem” crafted the very uniqueness that made audiences leap off their television couches for the chance of viewing seven women displaying remarkable, realistic stories of triumph and tribulation. Populating each week during the summer of 1976, Krasner and the theatre world were stunned. In the three months since opening their doors in The Public Theatre, Shange’s Production made its debut on Broadway. Becoming the second African-American woman in history to have a Broadway production, preceded by Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 Production, A Raisin in The Sun, Ntozake Shange and her cast (Rise Collins, Trazana Beverley, Paula Moss, Janet League, Aku Kadogo, and Laurie Carlos) were nominated for Grammy Awards in the category for Best Spoken Word Recording. Trazana Beverly won a Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her portrayal as Lady in Red; the first of six African-American women to receive this honor. As Jacqueline Trescott eloquently states for The Washington Post, “as it became an electrifying Broadway hit and provoked heated exchanges about the relationship between black men and women…. It’s form - seven women on the stage dramatizing poetry-was a refreshing slap at the traditional, one-two-three-act structures.”

Since witnessing the choreopoem at The Public Theatre, and again at The Booth Theatre, Krasner made it an initiative to produce a rendition of the performance someday. A prolific educator, Dr. Krasner has worked as an instructor at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, directing institutional productions such as Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (a South African play giving an insight of social and political racism black South Africans faced in the 1970s), as well as working as Yale University’s Director of Undergraduate Theatre, Head of Acting at Emerson College, and Dean of the School of the Arts in Dean College. Krasner said, “Out of all of the places I ran, I have never been in a situation where there were at least seven women of color who could do it.”

Coming to Five Towns College in the spring semester of 2018, Krasner was instantly accredited as a champion for giving students equal opportunity. Five Towns College registered their theatre program sometime in 1992, creating a space for actors, set designers, costume designers, technicians, and play writers to accelerate their craft for a world outside the 40-acre campus. Current Five Towns College President, Dr. David Cohen, previously worked as the Provost and Administrator of the college under the guidance of his father, Stanley Cohen, who was the Founder and President of Five Towns until 2014, and still to this day, a profound figure within the college. Under Stanley Cohen, plays and musicals became a revenue source for the college. Avenue Q, American Dating Catastrophe, and The Eddie Money Musical: Two Tickets to Paradise were successful productions that took place when Stanley Cohen was the President and under the guidance of Professor John Blenn, a popular mainstay in the Long Island institution since 2001.

Often wearing jerseys representing local hockey and baseball teams, Professor Blenn joined Five Towns as the playwright resident, responsible for the original comedy and promotion of the plays from 2004-2010. “The first year, we were selling out three of the four musicals. Selling out in advance,” Blenn said.

Reflecting on the commercial focus and appeal of the past productions, Dr. David Cohen said, “It was a different era.” Cohen’s background in higher education and law helped to shape his vision for the theatre department at the college, “We’re not in the ticket sales business, we’re in the educatin