Anyone who loves live theater has certain rare moments burned into memory – moments when we felt transported, delighted, eviscerated, whose impact never ebbs. For this reviewer, one such peak experience dates back to 1976, to the first Broadway production of the late Ntozake Shange’s dance-infused “choreopoem” for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. The entire play is deeply moving, but its emotional peak comes with the final line of the poem “a nite with beau willie brown.”
If you’ve ever seen for colored girls, or read it, or listened to the original cast recording, you know the line I mean. It’s very short. But it will rip out your soul: the sort of moment for which theater exists. The words can be read a variety of different ways. On the LP, Trazana Beverley – who won the 1977 Tony for Best Featured Actress in a Play for her performance as the Lady in Red – shrieks them. The night I witnessed the show, she whimpered them, which was if anything more devastating. Reportedly, Beverley threw herself into the role of Crystal so passionately that at one performance she literally fell off the front of the stage at that climactic point.
Last weekend in McKenna Theatre, 43 years on, that terrible line brought me to tears once again, uttered in yet another style of delivery – more matter-of-fact this time – by a SUNY-New Paltz student, Deborah Crumbie. I’d go so far as to say that if you can get through that passage without weeping, you have no heart.
One need not be either “colored” or a “girl” to be profoundly affected by this extraordinary, transformative work of theater, although Shange wrote it with the deliberate intent of affirming the value and variety of black womanhood, the power of sisterhood. Many of the experiences related therein will be most relatable to women or to people of color, obviously. But anyone can know how it feels to be discarded by a lover to whom you have given everything that makes you genuine, or to be discounted as “regular” when you know that there’s something special inside you needing to burst out, or how crucial the healing powers of friendship can be. This is a contemporary play with the universality of Shakespeare, with heights and depths of feeling that resonate with the human condition.
Since its inception, for colored girls has evolved somewhat. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s inspired Shange to write a new poem, “positive,” that was not included in the original production. Other text has been modernized slightly; Beau Willie’s PTSD is a product of time spent in Iraq, not Vietnam, for instance. But in other respects, the message remains as urgent and revolutionary as ever – perhaps even more relevant in this era of #metoo and “intersectional” feminism.
That said, there were moments in the new SUNY Department of Theatre Arts production that seemed a little too rushed – not lingering long enough on Shange’s exquisitely real language, not giving it the space it needs to breathe. Likely that reaction is rooted in part in the fact that this reviewer has simply listened too many times to the original cast album and has preconceived notions of where the moments of stress should be, or how a certain treasured line needs to roll off the tongue. After “a nite with beau willie brown,” my favorite passage was Samantha Jane Williams’ sassy rendition, as the Lady in Green, of “somebody almost walked off with alla my stuff.” Perhaps not coincidentally, it was the poem whose performance most closely evoked the recorded version.
These students, under the direction of assistant professor of Theatre Arts Bria Walker, give the text their own fresh spin. Shange grew up immersed in jazz, and wrote her poetry in ways that accommodate, even invite, variations in pacing: now stately, now playful, now grieving or raging. Mostly what the audience needs is to be able to take it in, fully and clearly, so that the words can work their deep magic. The SUNY-New Paltz production achieves a lofty standard and will probably be even better the second weekend. The author, who died last October, would surely be proud of them. Don’t pass up this chance to experience it. And bring a pocketful of tissues.
Performances begin at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, March 7 through 9, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 10. Ticket prices are $18 general admission, $16 for seniors (62+), SUNY-New Paltz faculty, staff and alumni and non-New Paltz students, and $10 for SUNY-NP students. To order, contact the box office at (845) 257-3880 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.newpaltz.edu/nptheatre.