Leah C. Gardiner thought that the first time she encountered Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf was when she read it just after graduating college.
“But then … my mother said, ‘Do you remember the poster that was in our house? And you had the book in your room?’ I don’t remember that,” Gardiner says. Conscious or not, for colored girls… seems to have been embedded in Gardiner from childhood.
Now, she fulfills a destiny, directing the epic choreopoem in an Off-Broadway revival at The Public Theater, which begins performances October 8 and has already been extended to December 1. The work was first staged in 1975 before opening at The Public in 1976, later transferring to the Booth Theatre where it was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play. Since then, it was adapted for TV in 1982, adapted for film in 2010, and now takes a new form in 2019.
A poet since she was old enough to write, Gardiner studied poetry formally at the University of Pennsylvania (where she notably produced the college’s first all-black production) and read the full works of Shange after graduating and meeting the pioneer herself. Over decades, she and Shange worked together and formed an intimate friendship (“it doesn’t hit me until I’m actually in conversation with people and then I’m like it’s ‘Ntozake Shange,’” she says) and she has been laboring to fulfill the late writer’s vision with this production.
“What I'm most excited by in celebrating this piece is: Ntozake was all that and more,” she says. “She was down, she was educated, she was political, she was an activist, she was a Yoruba priestess. She was compelled by the diaspora and how we spoke so many different languages. I mean, she was an absolute unmitigated genius. And when you have that much genius in one body and in one mind, you are bound to make a play like this.”
Here, Gardiner digs into her experience of the play, what exactly a “choreopoem” is, why this is necessary viewing for black girls—but not only black girls, and how she uses theatre as a weapon.
Describe to me your experience of reading for colored girls… that first time. What was your take away at that age?
Well, I grew up going to the theatre a lot. I used to have slumber parties at plays. We would dress up in our pajamas, my mom would pile a bunch of us in the car, and then she would take us to see a play, and then we would go home and stay up all night.
But when I read for colored girls… and the rest of Ntozake’s work, I read it moreso as a poet. She’s as much a master at poetic scansion and the rhythms of her people in the same way that Shakespeare and Marlowe are. She writes very much in musical terms. At times there's sort of a more European approach with more of a staccato rhythm versus a more sort of authentically sort of scattered jazz rhythm, which is, of course, authentically African American. Take the African American diaspora and bring it into one text and this is that text.
In revisiting it now, what is your experience of it, now?
Well now it's exciting, right? Because I get to look at it in three dimensions. So I get to think about how the words look in space and the story that they tell in space.
Looking at the work you've done, that's a theme of your work: how the drama moves in space.
I came to theatre through the words and through dance simultaneously. I'm really interested in how language dictates thought and how silence is even its own character in plays. The musicality and muscularity of language is really exciting and interesting to me.
So, I have to be honest: I have never seen a production of for colored girls… because I didn't think I was strong enough to withstand it emotionally. As a director, how do you create theatre that is emotional and has the room to be unsettling or uncomfortable without it being triggering? How do you take care of your audience while also challenging them?
So, I will be very honest with you: I have never seen a production of for colored girls… either. So there we are. In terms of how we access emotions on stage and how we encourage actors to allow the language to speak through them, the language unto itself is really the place where the emotional life of the character and therefore the dramaturgy of the play exists. My hope with this production is that all of the design elements will really assist in supporting the emotional journey the audience goes on without dictating how they should feel because the language really does that. We just have to trust the language. Not knowing necessarily that you might have been strong enough is absolutely a beautiful and vulnerable and honest way of—as a woman, especially—thinking about your own evolution. This play asks us to do that on a very visceral level. It can feel overwhelming, but I think that's part of the beauty of this play. It allows you, in places, to breathe. And it's in those moments of breath and relief where you kind of gain your courage to come back, just like the women themselves, in the breath, gained the courage to come back.
Ntozake referred to this play as a reclamation of the black girl song, the “colored girl” song. Is this a moment of perspective-taking, in which you want the audience to see through black girls’ eyes, or is it a bridging of the gap saying "This experience is also your experience”?
Like Shakespeare, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare for his audience, right? And Ntozake made it clear this is called “for colored girls.” Even though that's her audience, I'm sure Shakespeare said to himself, "It would be really exciting to see my play done in Poland if anyone was ever interested." It's the same exact thing. This play is written for colored girls. Singing a black girl's song is specific to a black girl's journey in America. But Americans, ultimately, there are similarities in who we are. One thing that binds us is that passport, right? But there's something different about how a black girl sings her song. The hope is that when the audience sees this, they will leave thinking differently, not only about the black girl’s song and black girls, but also themselves. Because this is a play that is written very much to ask questions.
Ntozake wrote this in the early ’70s. Does it capture that specific moment of black womanhood or was it more of an ancestry of black womanhood?
I think a combination of both. Part of our culture is you never ever get away from your ancestors. Your ancestors are always propelling you forward. Our historical trauma comes from our own ancestral existence—and that is specific to African American culture, but there are a lot of cultures that live in a place of ancestral trauma. At the same time, our celebration and joy of strength in unity comes from our ancestors. At the time Ntozake was writing it, the way in which black women approached the Women's Lib Movement was incredibly powerful and when you think about her, what she was doing, and how her piece was questioned and challenged by black men at that time, you really do realize that she was writing a celebration. That's what she kept saying to me: "I wrote a celebration." It's a celebration of black womanhood.
How does that evolve to this version you put on stage 43 years later?
Listen, there’s a 25-year age range of my entire cast. The color spectrum of my cast, it’s the color rainbow of the black American woman. There's the generational difference, there's what we call colorism difference. These words take on different resonance but they tell the same story. Some of [the cast] are the grandchildren of women who fought hard on the front line. Let us hope 40-50 years from now when your children and my grandchildren and my great grandchildren put on this production, we will even be more evolved. Because this play is timeless.
While it is timeless, choreographer Camille A Brown brings contemporary dance forms and Martha Redbone brings original music. What was it like working with them to create this fresh vision?
Camille is adding contemporary dance but Camille has 200 years of African American dance [knowledge]. In many ways, Martha is the same. I intentionally wanted collaborators who had a very strong historical knowledge and contemporary knowledge of music and dance and African American tradition. And so it took me a long time to find them, and I can't be happier.
How does your personal relationship with Ntozake manifest in your directorial choices?
In every way. In our tradition we honor our elders and when she asked me for certain things and she told me she wanted things specifically for this production, I worked very hard to make it happen and the Public Theater has supported me in many ways. When Ntozake and I were first talking about this for the reading a year-and-a-half ago she said, "I want you to cast the rainbow. I want the spectrum. If you can find someone in a hijab, I want someone in a hijab. If you can find someone transgender, I want transgender. I want someone who's Deaf. Whoever you give me, I want to see it all because whatever makes a black girl makes a black girl. We all sing the same song." And we do, don't we? When you walk down the street, or when I walk down the street, we still walk down the street as women and put on our women armor. The hope and prayer is that people will realize, "Wow, she is writing in such a compelling way and telling the story and celebrating black womanhood and that is something that is a play for us by us." And that's joyous.
We started the conversation by saying that you came to the play through the language. Poetry is often easier to read to understand it. What is the key to understanding and absorbing the poetry for the people coming for the one time viewing at the Public?
Let me preface this answer by saying whenever I read poetry, and I've been writing it since I was five, I've always seen the poem visually. I visually see the images of the poem telling the story of the poem. It’s never been unusual for me to think about putting poetry on its feet and watching it move in space. For an audience, a person new to seeing poetry in space, think about it like contemporary verse or a play. Because that's what it is. You know, A Midsummer Night's Dream is poetry on stage.
In a recent interview you call the show an "absolute weapon." Earlier we spoke about the armor we put on as women. So what makes it a weapon and what do you hope it's fighting?
I don't know that we necessarily need to fight when we have weapons. Sometimes having a weapon is to protect. Having a weapon is to preserve. It's less about fighting and it's more about protecting and preserving our voice, our presence, our existence. We belong. We are here. This is not a request to be heard. This is a request for you to join us in celebrating how we sing our song because our songs are exquisite. Our stories are rich and vibrant and filled with hues and all colors of the rainbow. All colors of our culture and ultimately, my hope and prayer is when an audience member comes, he, she, or they will feel incredibly empowered to take the experience and go out and help change the world, because we need it and we need it fast. And that's what this kind of piece does. It weaponizes you to want to affect change. And that, as an artist, is the greatest gift we can give to the world.