First of all, do yourself a favor and read this book. Read it, and then read it again and again and again.

Then, go to YouTube and find video of one of many staged productions of the poems. It has been produced numerous times since its debut in 1974, including a 1976 run on Broadway. I think it is one of the central texts of African-American Feminism. Of feminism, generally, if the scholars would get their shit together and agree on it.

Read, watch, and absorb. Then, and only then, watch the Tyler Perry movie and cringe like I did.

“For Colored Girls” is a choreopoem: a term coined by Ntozake Shange to mean a staged combination of poetry, music, and movement. It is difficult to conceive of the possibilities of performance poetry or “spoken word” without mentioning this text in particular.

Chiefly, the stage production is reliant on the strength of Shange’s poetics, on certain repeated words and phrases, on the linkages among common themes in the poems. It is not reliant, generally, on a classic narrative or plot. Nowhere in the work does she rely on an omniscient narrator to translate the poetic language into prose language, or nail a story on top of the poems for the audience to catch on. There have been plenty of shows and movies since then, advertised as choreopoems, that rely on explanatory gimmicks such as these. But not this play. This is a work that relies on the audience to follow the poetry and the movement to its logical conclusion. There is no excess. It’s a masterwork.

Here’s an excerpt, commonly known as the “Sechita” sequence, complete with stage directions. I teach this poem all the time.

*******

Soft deep music is heard, voices calling “Sechita” come from the wings and volms. The lady in purple enters from up right.

lady in purple

once there were quadroon balls/ elegance in st. louis/ laced
mulattoes/ gamblin down the mississippi/ to memphis/ new
orleans n okra crepes near the bayou/ where the poor white trash
wd sing/ moanin/ strange/ liquid tones/ thru the swamps/

The lady in green enters from the right volm; she is Sechita and for the rest of the poem dances out Sechita’s life.

sechita had heard these things/ she moved
as if she’d known them/ the silver n high-toned laughin/
the violins n marble floors/ sechita pushed the clingin
delta dust wit painted toes/ the patch-work tent waz
poka-dotted/ stale lights snatched at the shadows/ creole
carnival waz playin natchez in ten minutes/ her splendid
red garters/ gin-stained and itchy on her thigh/ blk-diamond
stockings darned wit yellow threads/ an ol starched taffeta
can-can fell abundantly orange/ from her waist round the
splinterin chair/ sechita/ egyptian/ goddess of creativity/
2nd millenium/ threw her heavy hair in a coil over her neck/
sechita/ goddess/ the recordin of history/ spread crimson oil
on her cheeks/ waxed her eyebrows/ n unconsciously slugged
the last hard whiskey in the glass/ the broken mirror she
used to decorate her face/ made her forehead tilt backwards/
her cheeks appear sunken/ her sassy chin only large enuf/
to keep her lower lip/ from growin into her neck/ sechita/
had learned to make allowances for the distortions/
but the heavy dust of the delta/ left a tinge of grit n
darkness/ on every one of her dresses/ on her arms & her
shoulders/ sechita/ waz anxious to get back to st. louis/
the dirt there didnt crawl from the earth into yr soul/
at least/ in st. louis/ the grime waz store bought
second-hand/ here in natchez/ god seemed to be wipin his
feet in her face/

one of the wrestlers had finally won
tonite/ the mulatto/ raul/ was sposed to hold the boomin
half-caste/ searin eagle/ in a bear hug/ 8 counts/ get
thrown unawares/ fall out the ring/ n then do searin eagle
in for good/ sechita/ cd hear redneck whoops n slappin on
the back/ she gathered her sparsely sequined skirts/ tugged
the waist cincher from under her greyin slips/ n made her face
immobile/ she made her face like nefertiti/ approachin her
own tomb/ she suddenly threw/ her leg full-force/ thru the
canvas curtain/ a deceptive glass stone/ sparkled/ malignant
on her ankle/ her calf waz tauntin in the brazen carnie
lights/ the full moon/ sechita/ goddess/ of love/ egypt/
2nd millenium/ performing the rites/ the conjurin of men/
conjurin the spirit/ in natchez/ the mississippi spewed
a heavy fume of barely movin waters/ sechita’s legs slashed
furiously through the cracker nite/ & gold pieces hittin the
makeshift stage/ her thighs/ they were aimin coins tween her
thighs/ sechita/ egypt/ goddess/ harmony/ kicked viciously
thru the nite/ catchin stars tween her toes.

-Ntozake Shange

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