This blog describes the impact of Ntozake Shange’s groundbreaking choreopoem on my identity as a woman of color and a writer, compared to the impact of attending Tyler Perry’s movie adaptation with my husband.
In the late eighties, one book changed my life. Ms. Kupperman-Guinals, our drama teacher and teacher extraordinaire, pulled me to the side after class and gave me a copy of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf to read. Already a self-proclaimed poet, I was writing poems as mirrors of my days–the hardship of being a teenager, the beauty of nature, using big words to say small things, lamenting the crushes I had, and short stories about falling in love with Prince. When I look back on the reading of that book, it has become a pivotal event in my life. I know now was given a tool and mirror into so much deeper.
For Colored Girls was the first play I read written as both poem and play–a choreopoem. In content and structure, it gave me inspiration as a fledging writer to see what can be done with a narrative about being a woman of color, with a unique frame within which to explore and share that phenomenon. Told from multiple vantage points personified in colors, it bore witness of who we are (and I am) on paper. Stories of trials, tribulations, triumphs, excavations and epiphanies all woven in a metaphoric tapestry of a rainbow. A rainbow of womanhood. Reading the play, I felt like I was seen. Known. Believed. More than a statistic or stereotype.
For Colored Girls has become for me a tool and mentor text for using writing as confession, revelation, empowerment, sharing. I thank Ms. Kupperman-Guinals for giving me this torch to see myself and the world I could create. It later fueled for me the inspiration to write an undergraduate honors thesis on the works of Ntozake Shange (“The Negotiation of Silence in the Female Characters in Ntozake Shange’s Texts”), as well as an original play (titled “Episodes of Womanhood/Mahogany Women’s Movements/A Blackened Woman’s Voice from a Different World”). Years later, in 1992, while writing my thesis, I would have the honor of meeting the original torchbearer herself at Crossroads Theatre who inscribed my copy of The Love Space Demands with saying “Thank you for being who you are.”
Ms. Shange and Ms. Kupperman-Guinals gave gifts that keep on giving.
So when Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls” came out, I was excitedly reserved. Would the movie he produced captivate me the same way as did the author? Would I feel the same epiphany and inspiration in being a woman of color again, or would they be muted by the sacrilegious interjection of Madea in womanface? For me, “For Colored Girls” is one of those works that “should” stay as a text. Something different, even disappointing, can happen when the vivifying of a text is done onscreen. Some things get lost in translation, which is what I felt with both “The Watchmen” and especially “Beloved.” Beloved emerging out of the water and speaking in first person impact the reader in a way that the delivery of an image cannot fully capture.
Bad colds and conflicting dates kept me from seeing the movie with sister friends who wanted to make a dinner and a movie event from seeing the movie. We knew we would have much to talk about. Ironically, my husband, a movie buff, volunteered to go. Fingers crossed . . . we attended. Afterward, we spent an afternoon walking around the movie theatre parking lot debriefing.
Kerwin recounted that the movie upset him, leaving him to wonder if Tyler Perry hated men. He felt objectified and shrunk to one dimension. He disclosed that based upon the characterization of men of color in the movie, a man could only be a selfish “down low” HIV-positive husband who intentionally infects his wife, a traumatized alcoholic war veteran who abuses his wife and throws his offspring out the window, a slick-tongued rapist, a two-timing non-committal gigolo, or a john. Or absent. The married good cop was just a flash in a pan. To him, there were no layers, textures, complexity explored. Just stereotypes delivered. Again. And when I told him there were no male characters in the original choreopoem, he was befuddled by why they were included by Perry in the movie.
I wished my husband experienced what I did in reading the play over two decades ago. I genuinely wanted him to know what it felt like for me to see your complexion and complexity captured and given back to you as a gift, as I did with both my teacher and favorite author. Instead, he saw himself shrunken, caricatured. Again. This time, by his own.
Since seeing the movie together, my husband’s sentiments leave in me a feeling of responsibility for using words and images so others can see themselves. How can the poetry I write serve the goal of relaying my thoughts and ideas yet provide breathing room and a space for others to see and experience themselves? Relative to the two of us, how do I serve as a mirror of his truthful reflections? And, relative to us all, how can we live so that we serve as mentor text and mirror to our best and most possible selves?