The theater department at California State University, Fresno hasn’t been playing it safe recently. It kicked off the season with “T.I.C. Trenchcoat in Common,” a play so new it included a Facebook joke. And it follows with an intense, demanding and altogether fierce 1975 classic, Ntozake Shange’s seminal “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” which finishes up its run Saturday.
This provocative turn by the department has made for some interesting theater — and perhaps a need for open-mindedness on the part of the audience. Make no mistake, “For Colored Girls” does not always come in an easily digestible narrative form.
This series of “choreopoems,” which all have to do with the struggles and obstacles faced by African-American women, are told in threads of prose, poetry, choreography and music. Some are nearly impenetrable on first listen. Others are all too shockingly clear.
Yet as we absorb these “poems” — which cover such wide-ranging issues as rape, the loss of virginity and child abuse, along with the humor and resilience of black sisterhood — the important thing when staging this play is for the emotional tones to ring true. The material is by turns raucous, unapologetic, caustic, enraged and poignant. Even with a cast whose members have varying levels of acting experience, director Thomas-Whit Ellis and choreographer Katrina Steward mostly succeed in finding that emotional intensity. The result is a sometimes bewildering but frequently potent theatrical experience.
Standouts in the nine-person cast include a regal and charismatic Brittney Caldwell as the Lady in Red, a strong Breayre Tender as the Lady in Blue, an intense Bryattani McGhee as the Lady in Green and a highly physical Deja Thompson as the Lady in Orange. But more important is the sense of ensemble created by all the cast members, which has its roots in the opening scene when they bunch together in a line that suggests a centipede. This camaraderie, which provides much of the humor in the play, is a warm counterbalance to the severity of much of the material.
“For Colored Girls” is tied to a specific era — you can almost see the graffiti-laced New York subway cars lumbering by — and as it focuses on black women in turbulent times, it becomes an interesting window on a history that didn’t receive much attention. But it’s striking how much feels universal in Shange’s text. In one of the strongest poetic moments of the entire work, the rape-scene selection, each woman repeats: “Nobody came ’cause nobody knew.”
That tale, unfortunately, could come from today’s headlines. But there’s catharsis in sharing the pain — and reflecting on a better future.