‘for colored girls…’ brings black sisterhood to Maplewood

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — This weekend, 4th Wall Theatre and the Burgdorff Center in Maplewood will kick off a new partnership in a theatrical celebration of Black History Month.

The theater company will perform Ntozake Shange’s groundbreaking play “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.” This show — a “choreopoem” — weaves together 20 separate poems with music, movement and narrative to tell stories of love, empowerment, struggle and loss through a multifaceted representation of black sisterhood.

For many community members, performing this show at this time in our country’s development just felt right.

“Unfortunately, I think race relations have worsened and polls and surveys seem to bear this out,” Gwen Ricks-Spencer, the show’s director, told the News-Record. “People are talking at, and not to each other. We’re not ‘putting ourselves in the shoes of the other person,’ which is always a recipe for disaster in my opinion. ‘for colored girls…’ offers the audience a chance to really see and understand the joys, pains, struggles, challenges and triumphs of women of color and to find those things that we share in common. I think all good art does that and would be especially useful now.”

This show not only seeks to celebrate black women and acknowledge the struggles they have faced, but to unite the community. This effort is seen in the cast and crew, who hail from towns throughout northern New Jersey. The production features Lauren Pope Forbes of South Orange, Mimi B. Francis of New Brunswick, Samille Ganges of Jersey City, Sheleah Harris of Newark, Lynette Sheard of West Orange, Tasha R. Williams of Belleville and Dana P. Hawkins of East Orange; the production manager is Kate Swan of Teaneck and the stage manager is Martha Thalheimer of Paterson.

According to Ricks-Spencer, “for colored girls…” was a game changer when she first experienced it in the 1970s.

“It may sound trite or overly dramatic — but it is nonetheless true — this play literally changed the trajectory of my life,” Ricks-Spencer wrote in her director’s note. “‘for colored girls…’ was the very first Broadway show that I ever saw. Imagine this — a young girl from Ohio, on her first trip to the Big Apple in 1977. My exposure to theater up until that point was limited to high school productions of musicals such as ‘The Music Man’ and plays such as ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner.’ For the first time, I see a play with women that looked like me, telling stories of the struggle and joy that was their life. I loved everything about the piece — from the women, only identified by the color they wore to make them ‘everywoman,’ to the incredibly rich descriptions they used to take me to each locale.”

Andrew Fishman, who heads the Maplewood Office of Cultural Affairs, feels the same way, having seen the show performed previously.

“I do know this show. It is smart, stimulating and somewhat provocative, everything a good piece of theater should be,” Fishman told the News-Record. “I hope the audience will appreciate to work of talented performers, the satisfaction of seeing quality theater, and emerge activated by the subjects explored.”

The experience to participate in such a play is no less exciting for the actors.

“It’s amazing how relevant these stories still are for black women,” Sheleah Harris told the News-Record. “These ladies can be your sister, a friend, a co-worker or a stranger you pass by. That’s the beauty of this show. I think everyone in the audience should be able to relate to at least one woman’s story.”

For some, the show continues to provide inspiration to be their best selves and to have faith.

“‘I found God in myself and I loved her fiercely.’ These closing words in ‘for colored girls…’ are a prophetic reminder of my divine responsibility to exists with power and purpose,” Lynette Sheard said. “These monologues inspire me to document my own journey towards my own rainbow’s end.”

Just as one of the show’s main themes is black sisterhood, actor Tasha Williams felt the same core value among the cast.

“For me, ‘(for) colored girls…’ is a representation of unity, strength and support,” Williams told the News-Record. “This particular production is close to my heart because I was the last to join the cast. Most of these queens performed this show together last year and I thought I would feel like the odd woman out. I do not! These women have enveloped me and welcomed me into the fold in the spirit of this show and its message. I feel such a strong bond and sisterhood with this cast and crew of strong, supportive and loving women!”

For Dana Hawkins, the show is both a reminder of the pressure society places on women of color as well as their ability to break free of them.

“As a black woman, we can’t necessarily show vulnerability because we’re ‘trained’ to keep moving, to keep pressing on,” Hawkins said. “So what does ‘for colored girls…’ mean to me? It’s a delicate, beautiful, sanctified, magical, Saturday night, complicated, black anthem.”

And the cast and crew are thrilled to be presenting this anthem in Maplewood during Black History Month. Bringing the show to Maplewood, however, was not a foregone conclusion when the theater company found itself without a performance space in October.

“I was contacted by 4th Wall who had temporarily lost their usual performance space and I was immediately eager to make their engagement in Maplewood happen,” Fishman said. “I’m excited to work with the company, both because of their reputation and this piece in particular falling as it does during Black History Month.”

While the company usually performs at the Westminster Arts Center at Bloomfield College, the troupe was forced to find a new venue because of roof repairs there.

“Of course, we were dismayed because we wanted to complete our season, but didn’t know where we could go,” Ricks-Spencer said. “Our artistic director, Kate Swan, started calling around and one of the spaces she called was the Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts in Maplewood. She spoke with Andrew Fishman, who runs the center, and he was absolutely enthusiastic from the start to help us, and to get ‘for colored girls…’ at the center in February. Right now, I literally consider him an angel, come to earth to help us. We’re excited to be performing in a community that is so welcoming.”

And the community seems just as excited to have 4th Wall here to perform.

“The timing for this presentation couldn’t be better falling in the heart of Black History Month, and we enthusiastically welcome this organization to the Burgdorff Center,” Mayor Vic DeLuca said in a press release.

This show contains mature subject matter; so attendees should use discretion when considering bringing children younger than 16. The show will be followed by a brief discussion for those who are interested. The show will play three performances on Friday, Feb. 16, and Saturday, Feb. 17, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 18, at 3 p.m. at the center, 10 Durand Road.

Tickets can be purchased by calling 973-996-8484 or visiting www.4thwalltheatre.org.

Photos Courtesy of Tom Schopper