The young Praxis Stage was formed just over a year ago in the days following the 2016 election as a form of theatrical resistance, aiming to present Boston audiences with stories and ideas that act as statements of opposition.
Praxis thus far has selected a wide variety of titles that have been anything but predictable: From Arthur Miller and Clifford Odets to Stephen Adly Guirgis and Shakespeare, Praxis has carved out a unique space in the Boston theater scene. Now, for its sixth production with Ntozake Shange’s 1976 landmark choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, Praxis narrows its focus to the plight of black women in America.
Although for colored girls has inspired and empowered generation after generation of black women, it is doubtful that Shange could have known the far-reaching effect it would one day have when she first began performing drafts of the play in California bars back in 1974. But in a fairy tale-like ascent to mainstream success, she took the work to New York where it played at a string of tiny downtown theaters before being snatched up by Joe Papp for a brief run at his Public Theater. Three months later, for colored girls opened on Broadway, making it only the second play by a black woman to make it to Broadway (Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, two decades earlier, was the first). It was nominated for Best Play at that year’s Tony Awards and went on to run for two years.
I can’t know what it was like to have experienced something as cutting edge and genre bending as for colored girls back in the 1970s, but I can only imagine how revelatory it must have been for the hundreds of thousands of women of color who were finally seeing their stories shared on a mainstream stage. (It was cited as one of the influences behind Ifeoma Fafunwa’s HEAR WORD!, which just closed at the A.R.T.).
But for all that has changed since then, an awful lot remains unchanged, and the work still packs a mighty punch that feels like a desperately needed shot of adrenaline, even in this liberal and supposedly tolerant city of Boston.
The work, which unfolds in a series of poetic vignettes, sometimes with music and sometimes with dance (remember, it’s a “choreopoem”), possesses both a clarity and an opacity that reels you in without offering any easy answers. It is at once totally specific and a completely blank slate, really allowing a particular director and cast to put their mark on it.
Praxis’ production, directed by Dayenne C. Byron Walters (who is also in the seven-person cast), is rough around the edges in a way that you’d expect a fringe production to be yet remains a mixed bag, only occasionally approaching the kind of profundity the piece feels worthy of.
Exploring themes of assault, shame, identity, empowerment, and sisterhood, the cast cycles their way through more than 20 poetic monologues. Each of the seven women wears a different color of the rainbow (the costumes are by Cassandra Cacoq) and is given ample opportunity to shine, both individually and as a unit. The radiant Kerline Desir is a standout as Lady in Red, as is the stunning Thomika Marie Bridwell (Lady in Green) and Karimah Williams (Lady in Orange).
But the production lacks confidence and cohesion, and the storytelling is often unclear, with a lot of the movement (by W. Lola Remy) feeling compulsive rather than instinctive. When a director is also a member of the show’s cast, it can be difficult to attain total perspective, and I can’t help but wonder about what another pair of eyes would have done for its effectiveness.
The giant, characterless Hibernian Hall is not the ideal venue for an experience as intimate as for colored girls should be, and the cast—flanked by high ceilings that swallow up their sound—is frequently difficult to understand. Had this production played a venue not so opposed to atmosphere, the result would likely have been very different.
Still, there are moments of for colored girls that come close to reminding us why this piece holds such a revered place for so many. As for Praxis, a young theater company that is actually putting its money where its mouth is, its growth and continued success is in all of our best interest.
FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE / WHEN THE RAINBOW IS ENUF. THROUGH 2.25 AT PRAXIS STAGE AT HIBERNIAN HALL, 184 DUDLEY ST., ROXBURY. PRAXISSTAGE.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.