Ntozake Shange's choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf debuted in 1975. It is a combination of drama, music, dance, and poetry meant to be performed by seven actresses. It has since become a cornerstone of black feminist writing and 20th century drama.
Shange differentiates the seven characters in the play only by the color of their costumes. They each deliver monologues and engage with each other in dialogues about subjects like rape, abortion, domestic violence, coming of age, sensuality, poverty, oppression, isolation, and self-realization. The overall arc of the piece moves from despair and longing to a sense of community and hopefulness that comes from embracing female society and developing a strong sense of self. Shange weaves pieces of music throughout the performance.
Shange explains that she chose to use the word “colored” in the title of her choreopoem so that her grandmother would be able to understand it. Her writing style is idiosyncratic and she often uses vernacular language, unique structure, and unorthodox punctuation to emphasize syncopation. Shange wanted to write for colored girls.... in a way that mimicked how real women speak so she could draw her readers' focus to the experience of reading and listening.
Ntozake Shange based for colored girls.... on her own life experiences. In the early 1970s, she was suffering from depression, loneliness, and a profound sense of dislocation after her failed marriage, and started to ponder her identity as a black woman living in America. She started writing as a way of addressing her personal issues related to race, womanhood, and identity. While living in San Francisco, she began writing a series of seven poems based on Judy Grahn’s The Common Woman (1973). The 21 poems that comprise for colored girls... arose out of this work. In her introduction to the second publication of for colored girls.., Shange wrote, "the poems introduce the girls to other kinds of people of color, other worlds. To adventure, kindness, and cruelty. Cruelty that we usually think we face alone, but we don't. We discover that by sharing with each other we find strength to go on."
The choreopoem has garnered immense critical approbation and acclaim over the past four decades. However, some critics bemoan Shange's negative portrayal of black men, an accusation the playwright firmly refutes.
The first performance of for colored girls.... took place in a coffeehouse in New York City's East Village. It then moved to the Henry Street Theater, the Public Theater, and finally, premiered on Broadway at the Booth Theater in 1976. In 1995, Shange directed a 20th anniversary production of for colored girls... at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center in New York. In 2010, Tyler Perry adapted the choreopoem into a film. It has been continually performed in colleges and universities, art spaces, and theaters throughout the world. It has been set in beauty shops, prisons, and other historical time periods. A Brazilian production dropped the word "color" in the title and a group of women in Kentucky made it about class instead of race.