Ntozake Shange’s seminal “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” is her first, and still best-known work. Shange first performed it with four other women in a small bar in Berkeley, Calif., in 1974. By 1976 it was on Broadway, where it ran for nearly two years and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play.
Celebrating the power of reclaiming one’s voice, the seminal work’s influence is everywhere. One has to look no further than to Basement Poetry, the company producing “For Colored Girls…” at the Ice House in Bethlehem Friday and Saturday.
The company was born of six friends from Northampton Community College who wanted their voices to be heard and grew into a performance art group focusing on slam poetry and movement theater. Dedicated to creating a courageous and safe place to share stories through art, the group presents productions that speak about the silenced voices of their community — women, people of color, mentally ill, LGBTQ and every other marginalized group.
A stated inspiration for the work they do, “For Colored Girls…” is a natural fit as Basement Poetry’s first-ever scripted production.
“We hope to lift women of color and inspire the masses with [Shange’s] words and honesty,” says artistic director Chloe Cole-Wilson. “The Lehigh Valley is such a diverse place and the beauty of that needs to be celebrated and praised. [The production] embodies the fierce women that have built and continue to mold the arts in the Lehigh Valley.”
Structurally, “For Colored Girls…” is a series of 20 poems, collectively called a “choreopoem.” The poems are choreographed to music that weaves together interconnected stories. It is performed by a cast of seven nameless women, identified only as colors. Their interconnected stories of love, struggle, loss, and empowerment weave a complex representation of sisterhood and shine a light on what it means to be a woman of color in America.
Influenced by both the Black Arts Movement and the Feminist Arts Movement, the choreopoem was a theatrical form pioneered by Shange. The term, which she coined specifically in her description of “For Colored Girls…,” represents the combination of poetry, dance, music and song into a singular form of dramatic expression.
Growing from the most fertile time for theatrical experimentation in the United States, Shange’s work attempts to veer from traditional western narrative. Uncuffed by the structures of linear plot and literal characters, she is able to focus on the emotional journey of the piece and the response it elicits from the audience.
In many ways the choreopoem’s cultural impact and unexpected commercial success laid the ground work for the slam poetry movement that rose to prominence in the early 2000s. Arriving in the national consciousness with HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam,” it has taken root in venues throughout the country, which provide a platform for marginalized voices to be heard, sharing their stories and building community.
In addition to its productions at the Ice House, Basement Poetry has performed for classes at Lehigh University and Moravian College, and been invited to do a residency at Broughal Middle School in Bethlehem.
“We’ve come a long, long way since that cramped classroom on a college campus, but much of our journey lies ahead.” says Cole-Wilson, “We want to be a home for our community, for our youth, for those whose voices aren’t loud enough. We want to be your soft, your clear, your hurt.”
“For Colored Girls” contains mature content and may be inappropriate for people under 18.
• “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Ice House, 56 River St., Bethlehem. Tickets: $10 BasementPoetry.ticketleap.com
Lecesne hopesto inspire ‘Brightness’
The critically acclaimed “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” written and performed by James Lecesne and directed by Tony Speciale with original music by Tony Award-winner Duncan Sheik, runs through June 4 at the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre.
In “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” a tenaciously optimistic and luminous 14-year-old boy has gone missing from his small Jersey Shore town. Lecesne inhabits nearly a dozen personalities and voices of the people who shared Leonard’s life, including the Shakespeare-quoting detective assigned to the case. Together they form a portrait of a town which is unexpectedly inspired by Leonard, whose story forces them to question how they live, who they accept and what they leave behind.
Lecesne based the play on his own Young Adult novel “Absolute Brightness,” which received the William Morris Award by the American Librarian Association and was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award.
“My hope with ‘The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey’ is that it will get audiences thinking about the obstacles young people face when they make up their mind to be true to themselves and inspire each of us to be absolutely bright,” Lecesne says.
Youth is a continuing theme in Lecesne’s work. He wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-winning short film “Trevor,” which inspired the founding of “The Trevor Project,” the only nationwide 24-hour suicide prevention and crisis intervention lifeline for LGBT and questioning youth. In addition, Lecesne has written three novels for young adults, including “Absolute Brightness.” He was executive producer of the documentary film “After the Storm,” which follows the lives of 12 young people living in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Tony Speciale is the artistic director of Abingdon Theatre Company in New York City. He conceived, co-authored and directed the world premiere of “Unnatural Acts” for Classic Stage Company, which received Drama Desk and GLAAD Media Award nominations, and has also directed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” featuring Bebe Neuwirth, Christina Ricci and Taylor Mac for Classic Stage Company; “Handbook for An American Revolutionary” for The Gym at Judson, and “Stet” at Abingdon Theatre Company. His regional credits including Barry Manilow’s “Harmony” at Alliance Theatre/Ahmanson Theatre and “Romeo and Juliet” at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Speciale served four seasons as associate artistic director of Classic Stage Company and is the recipient of a Princess Grace Theatre Honorarium and Suzi Bass Award.
Duncan Sheik won Tony Awards for Best Orchestrations and Best Original Score for “Spring Awakening,” which also received a 2008 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album. He has written music for “American Psycho,” “Because of Winn Dixie” at Delaware Theatre Company and “Whisper House” at Old Globe Theatre.
•”The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” Tuesdays-Sundays, through June 4, Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. Tickets: $15-$62. 215-985-0420, PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org.
Daniel Friedman is a freelance writer.
Jodi Duckett, editor
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