What does Shange think?

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?

Ntozake Shange speaks into a microphone next to Soyica Diggs Colbert

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:

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.

Kim Hall with microphone, in audience

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?!”

Women standing to ask a question, surrounded by audience

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:

somebody/anybody
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

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10 thoughts on “What does Shange think?

  1. Thank you for writing this! I reluctantly saw this with my mother when it came out a few years ago. She’s a huge Tyler Perry fan. I had the same issues with this film. I felt that it was way too heavy-handed and that Perry does not know how to handle subtlety. While I was glad that this gave a multitude of black actors a chance to shine, I wish they could’ve done so in a better product.

    There was a version of the choreopoem created for PBS three decades ago, with Lynn Whitfield and Alfre Woodard, and I really enjoyed that one. Too bad the film version can’t compare.

  2. Dienna – Thank you for your comment. I also recall the PBS version, which I felt was a more accurate depiction of the work for the screen. I’ve never seen it on stage, so that is actually my only visual reference point. I am curious, how did your mother feel about the work as a Tyler Perry fan?

    • She had no problem with it. I even tried to have a conversation with her about the issues that I found with it, but she likes the man’s work and there’s no making her see things from a different perspective.

      The problem with Perry’s stuff is that it doesn’t challenge people to think and it’s very one-note.

  3. Thanks for this post. When I first saw the movie I was so disturbed by it and that unease was heightened by the worry that Shange somehow thought Perry did justice to the film. Although what emerged from the event was a disturbing story of the co-optation of a class feminist work (and pushing aside black female creativity and labor), I was glad to hear Shange’s herself say that it did not reflect her vision.

    In addition to the psychological and physical violence women inflict on each other in the film, I am utterly bewildered by the [do you need a SPOILER ALERT for a spoiled text?] cross-cutting of the brutal rape with the guys cruising each other at the opera–are these things the same in Tyler Perry’s mind?

  4. “What emerged from the event was a disturbing story of the co-optation of a classic(?) feminist work (and pushing aside black female creativity and labor)…”

    AMEN. I think I was even more disturbed after doing a google search and coming across that video with Perry talking about how much care and respect he had for Shange and the work, and their collaboration with the many drafts and notes of the script. His tale is the exact opposite of what she talked about last Wednesday, so either he is outright lying and doesn’t care, or there is more to what each is saying.

    I also don’t think that Perry is equating guys cruising each other with rape, but perhaps he is equating the betrayal of trust in each situation.

  5. I was blessed to perform in both the Broadway and National Tour versions of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Knowing Ntozake’s original intent, it took me awhile to go see the movie; as my ‘gut’ told me (like my sisters here) that Perry wouldn’t get it. While I respect him for his business acumen; as a director, his vision is still rather limited. In my eyes, a technical observation – comparing the film and the choreopoem is like comparing apples to oranges. Perry chose to present ‘For Colored Girls’ in “real time,” which I think limits the work. As a performance piece, the choreopoem flowed through past and present, often co-mingling with ease. Because the movie was set in real time, the actresses (all phenomenal) could not reach the victory of self-love and strength that was Ntozake’s focus in the choreopoem – and its finale. Sydnie is spot on – the conclusion is totally depressing! There is no victory! At the movie’s end, the women are still in the midst of their pain, their healing is only just beginning. The worst for me, was seeing the dancer, who before being raped, was vibrant and colorful; and yet, at the movie’s end, she’s drab, devoid of color or joy. That was not Ntozake’s vision!

  6. Jonette – What a pleasure to hear the thoughts of a performer in the staged productions! I had not even considered the limitations that the medium of film would place on it versus that of the stage – where the realities of setting and time are more malleable. Truthfully, I’m holding out hope that there is another screenwriter out there who has more vision and creativity to bring the choreopoem to the film screen while holding onto the nuance of Shange’s original work. I do think it can be done well, but the creators would certainly have to think outside of the box.

    • I agree with you, Sydnie! I think the only screenwriter and/or director who could do the work justice would have to be another woman. The director/actress, Kasi Lemmons comes to mind. all the best in your continued work and art!

  7. I was also struck by the fact that the women at the end of the play do not seem empowered—in fact, they look almost defeated, speaking through tears (again), and never fully realizing the complexities and their beauty which Shange wrote into the play. It also colored by understanding of Shange’s other work—specifically Spell #7—and made the characters at the end of the play seem more restricted, hopeless, and disempowered than at the beginning, so I can see how Perry might have interpreted For Colored Girls the way he did. Even though it’s really hard to take Tyler Perry’s creative decisions as artistically conscious, I think it’s fascinating (and scary) to see Shange’s work through a male perspective. Instead of the strong and complex women that Shange portrays at the end of For Colored Girls, Perry makes them seem lifeless, two-dimensional, and estranged. Is this the common perception of violence against women, and its repercussions, from a male perspective? If so, it could seem that Perry directed the work through a kind of artistic irony, where a feminist work is taken from the male perspective and turned almost upside down. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see Perry’s creative decisions as artistically conscious.

  8. In Shange’s Spell #7, the issue of representation of black identity in the performing arts is at the heart of the work. In a St. Louis bar frequented by black actors pigeon-holed into stereotypical, one dimensional characters by mainstream theater, black men and women are given the opportunities to play complex, emotional, human roles. In other words, the complexity of their experience is finally given a voice in this setting in a way that it is not in any other. Shange, as in Coloured Girls, takes special care to represent the complexity of the black woman’s experience in particular. Through the different stories and roles that the black actresses take up throughout the novel, we see the black woman engaging in the process of creating herself, rejecting black womanhood as a mere longing for white womanhood, and reacting against and rejecting the oversimplification of others’ narrative of them. If there are moments of sadness, they are never overwhelming, and they never prevent the characters from asserting themselves or telling their stories.

    It’s strange to note that historically, when relegating black characters to the realm of the one dimensional, it was often on the plane of reducing them to naïve, grinning, slightly stupid but friendly characters who have not a care in the world. Yet in Tyler Perry’s version of For Coloured Girls, the one dimensionality of the women portrayed takes place in the realm of the tragic. Perry renders these women as being overwhelmed by the pure sorrow of their lives, and this may mark the evolution of the misrepresentation of the black woman as moving from the mammy and the jezebel, to the slightly more contemporary figure of the used and abused victim. In this sense, Perry, who has been accused of portraying the mammy stereotype in the form of his character, Madea, seems to have missed the mark in terms of representing the complexity of his characters by slipping into the other extreme in terms of the melodrama of the women’s lives. The black woman is not allowed to create herself per se, nor to respond to the prevailing notions about her experience that the gaze forces upon her. Rather, the essential characteristic that seems to denote her experience is her struggle and her sorrow. In allowing these elements to define the black woman, Perry does not allow her to assert her own agency in terms of a process of self-creation or fortification of identity through sisterhood.