by Rhonda Cooksey
I just reread Ntozake Shange’s famous choreopoem and was once again transported by the 21 poems that, on stage, are performed by the ladies in brown, yellow, purple, red, green, blue, and yellow. In Shange’s introduction to the book, she explains how her poems transformed from feeling, to “solo word art,” to a multitude of staged performance pieces, and even film. She credits producer Oz Scott for the inspired idea to have her poems voiced by seven women dressed in the seven colors of the rainbow. According to Shange, “Oz had made a natural leap, physicalizing the image, giving the rainbow human form.” On stage, the stories are told in poetry, dance, and living color.
The movie version has a whopping one and a half stars from Rotten Tomatoes, but Shange considered the movie an opportunity for her work to take new form. I wish I had seen the 2019 production of the choreopoem at the Kansas City Reparatory Theater. For me, it’s not meant to be a movie drama, let alone a melodrama. The stories take on added meaning when recited and danced by a sisterhood in rainbow colored clothing. The rainbow offers hope for rainy days.
Crowd pleasing favorites include the poems “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff” and “a nite with beau willie brown.” My personal favorite is “sechita,” originally performed by the lady in green. For Shange, it was a difficult poem to write. She points out that “Sechita is an Egyptian goddess of creativity and filth,” and says she was inspired by “the fancy girls in New Orleans who had to find some kind of work after the Civil War during Reconstruction.” Meant to represent the experiences of numerous black women past and present, the character combines “beauty with gall.” Shange says Sechita as a black woman working the 1870s carnivals could just as easily be a black woman working strip bars on Second Avenue. Part Egyptian goddess and part whiskey-drinking carnival attraction, Sechita does what she has to in order to survive. I highly recommend the book version, but don’t miss an opportunity to see it performed on the stage. Imagine the lady in green “dancing out Sechita’s life,” or check out different versions on YouTube like this virtual reading from 2021, “The Arts on Sunday Afternoon.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQrIEnRYs7A
once there were quadroon balls/elegance in st. louis/laced mulattos/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/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 with painted toes/the patch work tent was poka-dotted/stale lights snatched at the shadows/creole carnival was playin natchez in ten minutes/her splendid red garters/gin-stained n 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 millennium/threw her heavy hair in a coil over her neck/sechita/goddess/the recording 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 full lower lip/from growin into her neck/sechita/had learned to make/ allowances for distortions/but the heavy dust of the delta/left a tinge of grit n darkness on every one of her dress/on her arms & her shoulders/sechita/waz anxious to get back to st. louis/the dirt there didn’t crawl from the earth into yr soul/at least/in st. louis/the grime was 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 of the ring/n then do searin eagle in for good/sechita/cd hear redneck whoops n slappin on the back/she gathered her sparsely sequinned skirts/tugged the waist cinched from 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 millennium/performin 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 thru 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.
Shange, Ntozake. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, Scribner, 2010.