Two powerhouse Asian-American actors, Audrey Park and Sun Mee Chomet, virtually steal the show in “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” Ntozake Shange’s 1976 landmark “choreopoem” that has given theatrical voice to generations of black actors.
Shange envisioned this piece, in which seven color-themed performers testify about their joys, travails and challenges, as a work about black and Latina women. Penumbra Theatre has re-imagined it as being about women of color more broadly, and cast a range of performers.
This “Colored Girls,” which opened Thursday, speaks to the durability of Shange’s themes and poetry, to the time we’re in and to the relevance and ambitions of Penumbra, which has given the work a lyrical staging by artistic director Sarah Bellamy and her father, theater founder Lou Bellamy.
As the Lady in Red, Park delivers a searing performance of a character trying to escape an abusive relationship.
Chomet’s Lady in Green has perhaps the most famous monologue in the show — “Somebody almost walked off with all my stuff” — and she slays it. Commanding the stage as her fellow actors sit in the aisles, Chomet infuses the piece with charisma and wit. Her character may have given her love with the hope that it would not be belittled or discarded. But she projects a confidence that she will not be diminished. Her heart is a spring that is continually renewed.
That theme, of renewal and refreshment, runs through this “Colored Girls,” whose evergreen subjects include sexual assault, abortion and heartbreak. The Bellamys stage it dramatically and with elegance on Vicki Smith’s clean set of big scrims sharply lit by Kathy Maxwell.
The performers dance with supple sensuality to a soulful sound score designed by Drea Reynolds. Ananya Chatterjea’s choreography serves as self-expression, self-affirmation and communal bonding. And there are ritual elements, as well. The actors bring bowls of rice powder to the stage before launching into monologues that seem so current, especially around sexual assault.
The commendable cast is rounded out by Khanisha Foster (Lady in Blue), Ashe Jaafaru (Brown), Rajané Katurah Brown (Yellow), Am’Ber Montgomery (Purple) and Cristina Florencia Castro (Orange).
The co-directors use the scrims to suggest witnessing, permeability and a give-and-take not just between the characters but also between the past and present. That last idea is further underscored by a new framing device for the show: Three youngsters with backpacks come onstage before the action starts and return near the end. They look like kids doing homework; the show is their lesson.
The adolescents, like the audience, are the inheritors of Shange’s timeless explosion of creativity. They are witnesses to a history that one hopes will not be repeated.
One final point about this auspicious “Colored Girls.” It marks the mainstage directorial debut of Sarah Bellamy, who is better known as an educator and theorist than as a theater practitioner. This work will help change that reputation.
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