For Colored Girls (2010): Tyler Perry’s Version of Ntozake Shange’s Notable Play

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Hovering between theater and cinema, sociology and drama, poetry and narrative, “For Color Girls,” Tyler Perry’s screen adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s award-winning play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” is a major artistic disappointment.



As could have been expected, the big screen is not particularly hospitable to long monologues (unless they are written and filmed by a master like Ingmar Bergman), and particularly not suitable to recitation of poetry, no matter what the subject matter is.

And so the only reason–but it’s a good one–to see “For Colored Girls” the movie is the high-caliber acting of a large ensemble of gifted African-American actresses, which includes Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise, Whoopi Goldberg, Janet Jackson, Thandie Newton, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Jill Scott, Jurnee Smollett, Kerry Washington, Tessa Thompson, Michael Ealy, Macy Gray and Omari Hardwick.
“Precious” notwithstanding, there have not been many American films about the African-American existence, and even less so about the female experience of that life. Most of the films by Spike Lee, John Singleton and other black directors have centered on male stories and male protagonists.
Based on his record, Tyler Perry has been able to bring a large audience to his comedies and romantic dramas. Question is, will his loyal viewers see “For Colored Girls?”  Lionsgate faces a major marketing challenge in putting over an original but problematic film, one that never finds its right pace or rhythm and only seldom registers strongly from an emotional standpoint.
Some background is in order. “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” originated as a play in 1975 in California, before being being staged Off-Broadway (at the Public Theater where I saw it as an undergrad Columbia student in 1977). The 1977 Broadway production was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play and won acting accolades for Trazana Bevreley. The production was then adapted into a book, a TV movie in, and a theatrical feature film.
“For Color Girls” precedes Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” in assigning particular colors to particular characters, such as the “Lady in Yellow,” “Lady in Red,” “Lady in Blue,” and so on.  The play attracted a diverse audience of black viewers, composed of black scholars, black nationalists, and feminist activists, but also many white (and other non-black) females who felt closer to the minority women on stage than to their own kind.
To his credit, Perry does not try to turn the truly idiosyncratic play “For Colored Girls” into a more conventional or typical Tyler Perry movie. Clearly he loves the text, and he deserves credits for taking major risks in trying to transform an original text, which was tough even as stage material, into a more popular and accessible big screen entertainment.
To open up the play, Tyler the writer and director has made some crucial decisions. Unlike the play, in which the women represented different regions, most of the screen protags reside in the same shabby building, in New York’s Harlem.
The first reel is rather promising in the way that it introduces the main characters, often in outdoor (street) scenes, or in the staircase of the house in which they live. But after 20 minutes or so, this strategy becomes repetitive and the narrative reverts to being a theatrical melodrama.
Structurally, “For Colored Girls” consists of two dozen poems, collectively called a “choreopoe.” Thematically, the poems deal with the most common problems encountered by black women: physical and sexual abuse, out of the wedlock pregnancy, abortion, desertion by lovers or husbands, abandonment by fathers, poor childhood and lack of means for formal education, dishonesty on the part of men (some of whom are bi-sexual or gay and thus run the risk of HIV positive)
Tonally, the disenfranchised voices expressed on stage combined an angry, rebellious spirit with a softer, more mellow and mournful tone, almost like blues or soul-music. However, Perry’s screen adaptation is blunt and melodramatic, lacking subtlety and ambiguity.  For example, in the play the love-hate relationships between the women and the men in their lives was clearer; we felt their emotional co-dependency, their sexual desire for men; their willingness to put up with a lot of problems just for the sake of steady and stable companionship–and sex.
Registering strongly is Kimberly Elise, who starred in Perry’s 2005 feature debut, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” here playing Crystal, a character inspired by “Lady in Red,” a long-suffering woman, abused by her depressed lover, a war vet (Michael Ealy) who wants to marry her.
Also featuring prominently is Crystal’s rich and snobbish employer, Jo (Janet Jackson), a high-powered magazine editor who shares a huge, elegant loft with her husband (Hardwick), an attractive but less accomplished male who (ab)uses her back accounts and feels too subservient to her. When confronted, he’s forced to admit to leading a double life, claiming that he is not gay; he just likes to sleep with men!
Thandie Newton gives one of the film’s harshest and strongest performances as a promiscuous, sophisticated bartender who uses sex to address some deep personal and familial problems. Newton’s kid sister is played by Tessa Thompson, a youngster who suffers from the firm hand of her domineering, fanatically religious mother (Whoopi Goldberg) and goes through virginity-losing and abortion-suffering poems.
Kerry Washington has some good moments as a child welfare worker, who cannot conceive herself. Loretta Devine plays a sassy, upbeat counselor, besieged by domestic troubles in her own love life, specifically a bi-polar, unsteady man, who comes and goes as he pleases.
Anika Noni Rose is cast as a dance instructor whose infectiously upbeat attitude can’t last long.   Observing most of the incidents and the women behind it, and serving as a mediator of sorts, Phylicia Rashad plays a middle-aged neighbor (who’s always at home), the only solid femme, who seems to have no problems (or secrets) of her own, because we don’t get her back story or monologue.
The problem is no so much the lack of a conventional narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, but finding a suitably dramatic structure to contain the lengthy poetic and lyrical monologues. But as scripted and directed by Perry (who’s also the producer), the sequential order of the women and their monologues is melodramatic, accompanied by sudden bursts of anger and hysteria and visual depictions of abortion, physical abuse, rape, which are intercut with other melodramatic incidents.
The end of the play was particularly stirring, as all the women are brought together for “a laying on of hands,” in which Shange evokes the power of womanhood in the African-American milieu and the significance of female camaraderie. The Lady in Red begins the mantra, “I found God in myself/and I loved her/I loved her fiercely,” soon to be joined by the other femmes. In the movie, Tyler stages the scene on the roof, as a farewell party given by Newton to her baby sister, who is going to college.
Admittedly a difficult (perhaps unfilmable) text, “For Colored Girls” is essentially a conceptual-allegorical work.  But it really falls beyond the reach of Perry, a writer-director who seems to be much more comfortable staging broader, largely comedic and melodramatic material that’s like TV soap or sitcom. Moreover, there is no singular style to delivering the poetry, whose recitation takes place in different contexts, and more often than not is flat, lacking the emotional impact that it had on stage.
The film was shot in New York by Perry’s reliable collaborators. cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski, editor Maysie Hoy, production designer Ina Mayhew, and composer Aaron Zigman.
Film’s Background
First performed at the Bacchanal, a woman’s bar in Berkeley, California, the play was then produced in New York at Studio Riobea in 1975 and Off-Broadway at the Public Theatre in 1976, before moving to Broadway’s Booth Theatre in 1977.
The play was published as a book in 1977 by Macmillan, followed by a Literary Guild edition and Bantam Books editions in 1980. In 1982, an abridged version of the play was produced as an American Playhouse TV movie featuring Shange, Laurie Carlos, Tony Award winner Trazana Beverley, dancer Sarita Allen, Alfre Woodard and Lynn Whitfield, among others.
Crystal/Brown – Kimberly Elise
Jo/Red – Janet Jackson
Juanita/Green – Loretta Devine
Tangie/Orange – Thandie Newton
Yasmine/Yellow – Anika Noni Rose
Kelly/Blue – Kerry Washington
Nyla/Purple – Tessa Thompson
Gilda – Phylicia Rashad
Alice/White – Whoopi Goldberg
Beau Willie – Michael Ealy
Carl – Omari Hardwick
Macy Gray, Richard Lawson, Hill Harper, Khalil Kain, Rayna Tharani, Jaycee Williams, Thomas “Deuce” Jessup, May Zayan, John Crow.
A Lionsgate release.
A presentation of Tyler Perry Studios of a Lionsgate and 34th Street Films production.
Produced by Paul Hall, Roger M. Bobb.
Executive producers, Ozzie Areu, Joseph P. Genier, Nzingha Stewart, Michael Paseornek.
Co-producer, Charisse Nesbit.
Directed, written by Tyler Perry, based on the stage play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” by
Camera, Alexander Gruszynski.
Editor, Maysie Hoy.
Music, Aaron Zigman; music supervisor, Joel C. High.
Production designer, Ina Mayhew; art director, Roswell Hamrick; set designer, Danny Brown; set decorator, C. Lance Totten.
Costume designer, Johnetta Boone.
Ssound, Damian Elias Canelos; supervising sound editor, Mike Wilhoit; re-recording mixers, Gary Summers, Daniel J. Leahy.
Special effects coordinators, Justin Crump, Eric A. Martin.
Visual effects, 2G Digital director, Roger M. Bobb.
Second unit camera, Sergei Franklin.
Line producer, Deborah A. Evans.
Casting, Robi Reed.
MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 134 Minutes.