Ntozake Shange on Stage and Screen video is now available on the BCRW website.
On Wednesday, November 7th I had the pleasure of attending “Ntozake Shange on Stage & Screen” sponsored by Africana Studies at Barnard. The event began with a screening of Tyler Perry’s film adaptation of Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, followed by a panel discussion and audience Q & A with Ms. Shange, Soyica Diggs Colbert, Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College, and Monica Miller, Associate Professor of English at Barnard. With so much negative criticism surrounding Perry’s 13 million dollar film adaptation, the question burning on every one’s mind was, what does Shange think?
I was relieved to learn that her thoughts aligned with the criticisms I’d been outlining in my head since I first saw the film over a year ago. Shange was frank:
— sydmosley (@sydmosley) November 8, 2012
In other words, Perry could not grasp the radical nature of the work, and it was clear, at least from an artistic standpoint, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.
For the sake of having thoughtful conversation about the film at this event, I tried to watch it again; but by the time one of the protagonists, a teenage girl, started to wander dirty back alleyways filled with what appeared like crack heads and other dangerous looking persons in search of an abortion from Macy Gray who sanitized her metal tools with liquor in supposedly present day New York City – I walked out of the James Room. I could not suffer through the non-sense a second time.
Colbert, in her opening remarks for the post-film discussion talks about how Tyler Perry’s investment in the tradition of melodrama shapes his stage plays and films. In her analysis, the melodrama makes issues—and their resolution— clear-cut. With grossly over dramatic scenes, and two dimensional archetypal characters that his audience is familiar with, according to Colbert, the melodrama is “an easy answer to complicated problems”; and it is the point of accessibility into the work. But “plain,” “heard it before,” “yearn to hear again” melodrama, as Colbert describes it, is not the intention of Shange’s original work. I wholeheartedly agree with Colbert’s assessment of Perry’s strategy, but ultimately by equating melodrama with accessibility, Perry cheapens the intellect of his audience, and erases the biggest theme of Shange’s original work – the dimensionality of black women. Again, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.
The next issue that plagued me about the film was the mismatched language. Prevented by Shange from changing her language, Perry unsuccessfully composed a contemporary dialogue around Shange’s poetic monologues. While the delivery of each by the all star cast was stellar, the transitions between poetry and prose, and thus the language of the film as a whole, left much to be desired; it achieves neither the lyric pleasures of the choreopoem nor the vernacular humor of a Madea script.
Audience questions prompted Shange to reveal how Perry got to write and produce the screenplay. She assured us that it was no rumor that director and screenwriter Nzingha Stewart was the first to work on a screenplay of for colored girls, but after an initial exchange between Stewart and Perry, who both work at Lionsgate Studios, it was Perry who approached Shange requesting to adapt the choreopoem into a major budget film. Shange, who only knew Perry’s work peripherally via his Madea character, gave him permission to do the work on the conditions that Madea did NOT make an appearance, and that he did not alter the language of the poems he chose to use. Stewart was relegated to Executive Producer with seemingly not much say in the creation of the work.
When I inquired further, Shange also admitted that she did not see a script until filming had already begun, and when she offered any type of constructive criticisms or revisions, Perry ignored them, opting to work on the screenplay entirely alone.
The final major criticism shared by many at the event was with regard to the overall tone of the film; it is decidedly depressing. Each of the many lead characters experience personal horror, and relationships between the women are largely unsupportive. The sisterhood that builds throughout performances of the choreopoem is withheld until the film’s end. Shange noted how odd it was to her that so many of the characters in the film talked through tears. She remembered sad moments in her original interpretation, but if there were tears, they happened after a character was done speaking. Yet, Perry’s melodrama dictates a sadness that obliterates all hope, or even the ability to speak about one’s experiences clearly. As one audience member exclaimed, “[They spent] 13 million dollars for all that violence against women?!”
Colbert and Shange reminded us though that the choreopoem is a joyful celebration of womanhood. That it is a work full of life and movement; a work with just as much pleasure and bliss as there is sorrow. Moreover, Colbert reminded us that Shange’s writing form – the choreopoem – is a model for grassroots feminism. Shange’s poetry is a call to action:
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you…
sing her song of life
Tyler Perry answered the call, but instead of pulling out the many shades and textures of black women so that audiences would know her depth, he creates joyless caricature. He perpetuates what Shange warns against —
she’s been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn’t know the sound
of her own voice
her infinite beauty
In Perry’s work, women who are too often flat caricatures in the mind of American popular culture, remain so – dead, silenced, and lacking beauty.
It was an honor and privilege to hear first hand Shange’s relationship to and opinion of the film. Perry missed the mark in manifesting Shange’s original intentions, and she let us know that, candidly. Unfortunately, the following interview with Perry reveals he can’t see it.
Shange and Perry are telling two different stories, and as for Perry’s attempts to “surrender” to the original work and its author, and “stay true” to the intention, he is so far off it is laughable.
Still, I think we do have to consider the few positives of Perry producing this work for the movie screen. He brought Shange’s name and her title to the attention of mass movie- going audiences, many young people, and many who may not have been familiar with her work before. Further he provided a forum for many of the foremost leading black actresses (and actors) in Hollywood today to shine. Even if the material they were working with left much to be desired, each artist did an excellent job with what she was given – and she was employed in a major budget film. Perhaps that is not the brand of feminism that Shange intended, but is it not a feminist move nonetheless?
Sydnie Mosley ’07 is a dancer, choreographer and teacher whose creative and research interests lie at the intersections of modern dance, movement in the African Diaspora, spirituality, feminism, and literature. As the 2011-2012 BCRW Alumnae Fellow, Sydnie produced and developed The Window Sex Project. She blogs at lovestutter.blogspot.com.