“& this is for the colored girls who have considered suicide/but are movin to the ends of their own rainbows” – Ntozake Shange
From October 3-6, the Vonnie Borden Theatre will be showing a version of the acclaimed choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.”
“For Colored Girls” was written by African-American poet Ntozake Shange as a collection of poems meant to be performed on stage accompanied by choreography, leading Shange to describe the performance as a “choreopoem.”
The poems cover a variety of intense adult topics including suicide, rape, PTSD, domestic violence and more creating a powerful, thought provoking outing at the theatre. The themes come from Shange’s own experiences as well as people she knew and witnessed over the course of her life. Shange suffered from severe depression in her life and said she attempted suicide four times in her life, until she saw two rainbows on the highway, leading her to create the title for the production. In 2010 the choreopoem was converted into a screenplay and a movie was released.
The stage performance consists of seven African-American female leads, identified not by names but by the color dresses they wear. The nameless characters allow the actresses to give the many different characters they embody unique voices that change from poem to poem. In this version of the play, the actresses use no props, relying on their dialogue delivery to convey the heavy themes covered in the poems. In addition to being a student directed production, students were the sole workers on the entire production; from acting to lighting, from scene design to costume design.
The choreopoem comes as student director Sarah Balli’s debut as a solo director as well as her senior project. Balli is graduating this December with a bachelor of arts degree with a minor in theatre.
“Instead of defending a thesis, art majors defend a body of work,” Balli said. “When I switched my concentration focus from art to theatre, I fell in love with directing and knew instantly that it was something I wanted to pursue professionally.”
When Balli was approved to be the director, she said made a list of plays she wanted to potentially produce. “For Colored Girls” was number one on the list because of what the choreopoem represented.
The themes and the background behind the poem as well as the current state of society led Balli to choose the performance as her first choice for production. Balli said as an intersectional feminist, someone who believes in equality for all women regardless of race or sexual orientation, the production acted as a perfect way to bring more recognition and respect to African-American women in theatre.
“The current state of our society was, and always will be a huge factor when choosing a play to direct,” Balli said. “The themes ‘For Colored Girls’ explores are, unfortunately more relevant now than they were 50 years ago.”
Actress Shelly Sneed who played lady in purple in the performance echoed the sentiment, and discovered parallels between her own experiences and the women she gave voices to in the play.
“I hope the audience realizes these struggles written about in the 60s are still issues we deal with today,” Sneed said. “Learning these women’s stories was so moving. Comparing them to my experiences and experiences of the other actresses, and seeing they have gone through the same things I have was amazing.”
Two factors decided which actresses performed each role: dialogue delivery and choreography experience. Choreographer and sophomore dance student at Southeastern Louisiana University Ashley Barbarin played a large role in selecting characters.
“Each character had different levels of choreography planned, and after cold read auditions we gave certain roles to the ones that had the level of dance background we were looking for for each character,” Balli said.
According to Southeastern Louisiana University theatre professor Chad Winters, the audience reaction on opening night led the seven actresses to make many split second decisions on how lines were delivered.
“I had watched several rehearsals over the semester as an advisor, and on opening night I saw so many new, fresh choices the storytellers made in the moment,” Winters said. “The audience brought them to life in a new way.”
Winters also said the choreopoem format of the performance lends itself to representing each director’s unique vision for the performance, meaning each rendition of the production can be drastically varied under different directors.
Leading up to her directing debut, Balli said she built trust with the theatre faculty by acting as assistant director in other productions at Southeastern. When the opportunity to direct arose, Balli said there were more challenges than she realized, and plotting out the timeline for the play was only a small portion of the job.
“Directors have this unwavering motivation to see their production through no matter what, which comes from months of analyzing a script and creating a design concept,” Balli said. “I somewhat naively expected everyone else to be as willing as I was to put everything else on hold in order to see the show through. I quickly realized, however, that directing is only 20% planning and 80% managing others.”
After opening night, Balli said was happy with the outcome of all the work leading up to launch.
“I feel honored to have been able to work with such an incredible group of women,” Balli said. “I hope this production of ‘For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf’ inspires women of color in the audience and enlightened everyone else.”