Saturday, November 6, 2010

For Colored Girls and Boyz

In June of 2003, following a performance of Wicked during its pre-Broadway tryout in San Francisco, I found myself with extremely conflicted feelings about Stephen Schwartz's new musical. Having read its source material (Gregory Maguire's wonderfully fanciful novel entitled Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West), I was disappointed by how much of its darker side and subplots had been eviscerated to make the show "family friendly."

Of course, this was not the first time that anyone had agonized over how a piece of literature had suffered in the process of being adapted for the stage.  Or, for that matter, how a beloved star's performance had been neglected when a Broadway hit was transformed into a movie musical.
  • After her career-making performances as Eliza Doolittle in New York and London, Julie Andrews lost out to Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 movie version of My Fair Lady (a new film treatment starring Carey Mulligan is due to be released in 2012).
  • When news reached Ethel Merman that Frederick Brisson had purchased the screen rights to 1962's Gypsy as a vehicle for his wife (Rosalind Russell), Merman sarcastically referred to Brisson as "the lizard of Roz."
  • When Carol Channing lost the title role in the movie version of Hello, Dolly! to Barbra Streisand, those who had seen the original stage production (whose theatrical brilliance was due, in large part, to the work of director/choreographer Gower Champion) were appalled at the way the show suffered in its transition to the silver screen.
  • Fans of Angela Lansbury who adored her portrayal of Auntie Mame were heartbroken when it was announced that Lucille Ball would star in Hollywood's 1974 version of Mame.  A gruesome artistic failure as a movie musical, Ball's performance inspired numerous catty jokes about the famed comedienne's heavily blurred close-ups in the film.
When people harbor fond memories of an original stage production, their expectations (and the emotional baggage that accompanies them into the cinema when the movie version is released) can often ruin any hope of objectivity.  I've been stunned by the bitterness and contempt for Tyler Perry, whose adaptation of Ntozake  Shange's beloved 1975 stage play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, has just been released as the film For Colored Girls with a lineup of talented African-American actresses who not only do justice to Shange's writing but, in some scenes, send it soaring out into the stratosphere.

What are these people so upset about? Most, I think, resent Tyler Perry's undeniable success.
  • Sexually abused as a child growing up in New Orleans, Perry eventually moved to Atlanta (where he started writing plays aimed at the "the chitlin circuit").
  • In 2005, it was reported in Forbes magazine that Perry's work had sold more than $100 million in tickets, $30 million in videos of his own shows, and $20 million in merchandise.
  • Perry's first film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, grossed more than $50 million domestically.
  • Madea's Family Reunion grossed $65 million.
  • Tyler Perry now lives and works in Atlanta (as opposed to New York or Los Angeles) where he has built his own film and television studios.
Whether writing, producing, and directing his plays (in which he has sometimes appeared in drag) or aiming for a niche audience whose sensitivities don't match those of mostly white film critics, Perry has succeeded beyond anyone's expectations.  Like President Obama, he is very much a wealthy, self-made African- American man.  As a result, there are many people who consciously (or unconsciously) envy his success at the same time they hate him for it.

What Perry has done -- some 36 years after the premiere of Shange's play (and with surprising grace and skill) is to devise two subplots that can unite the poems from the original play into a workable story line. One was achieved geographically, by having most of the women live in the same apartment building.

The other plot line is primarily sociological. It includes rape, domestic violence, exposure to HIV, infidelity, post traumatic stress disorder, abortion, and abandonment. Together, these two plot lines show that, no matter how strong they try to be, African-American women are often at an emotional and physical disadvantage in their relationships with men.

Crystal (Kimberly Elise) and Beau Willie (Michael Ealy)

Without sacrificing the beauty of Shange's poetry, Perry has found a way to weave many of her soliloquies into introspective arias delivered by a stellar cast featuring some of Hollywood's top African-American artists.  Producer Roger M. Bobb (who has worked with Perry since Diary of a Mad Black Woman) notes that:
"As a filmmaker, Tyler is in many ways uniquely positioned to adapt a play about women's lives.  Women are usually the backbone of Tyler's stories.  Maybe because he was primarily raised by women (his mother, his aunt, and his grandmother), he is comfortable writing women's emotions and perspective. Also, Tyler has adapted his own plays for his films, which I think makes a difference.  It's very difficult to adapt a play for the big screen, to open it up from a confined space and give it movement and visual texture.  And he is accustomed to doing just that."
The characters in For Colored Girls include:
  • Yasmine/Yellow (Anika Noni Rose), who runs a dance studio in Harlem and often acts as a mentor to teenage girls. Not quite ready to get into another relationship, she lets her guard down with tragic consequences.
  • Bill (Khalil Kain), the overtly nice guy who tries to woo Yasmine but, once inside her apartment, proceeds to rape her.
  • Jo/Red (Janet Jackson), the icy executive editor at a women's fashion magazine who is used to dealing from a position of power. A major control freak, Jo can do nothing about the fact that her stockbroker husband likes to have sex on the down-low with other men.
  • Carl (Omari Hardwick) is Jo's unfaithful spouse. He may prefer to be in a relationship with a woman, but what he really prefers is raw sex with men.
Jo (Janet Jackson) and Carl (Omari Hardwick ) attend a
performance at the Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center
  • Alice/White (Whoopi Goldberg) is an older black woman who has joined a Bible-thumping religious cult.  A furious pack rat, she has inflicted severe emotional damage on her two daughters (one who is still living with her and another who lives in the same building but refuses to give Alice any of the money that was left in her care by her father).
  • Tangie/Orange (Thandie Newton) is Alice's oldest daughter. Forced to have an abortion at an early age, Tangie has since become a bit of a nymphomaniac, dragging one man after another home to her apartment and then, much like a man, telling them to leave and take their sorry asses with them.
  • Nyla/Purple (Tessa Thompson) is Alice's younger daughter who is in line to receive a scholarship from Yasmine's dance academy.  Nyla is forced to throw up and grow up very quickly. Her unexpected pregnancy drives Tangie to send her younger sister to the same woman who performed Tangie's abortion.
Tangie (Thandie Newton) and her mother,
Alice (Whoopi Goldberg), argue in the apartment hallway.
  • Crystal/Brown (Kimberly Elize) is Jo's quiet administrative assistant whose husband suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Combined with the side effects of PTSD, Beau Willie's alcoholism poses a growing threat to the health and safety of their two small children.
  • Beau Willie (Michael Ealy) is Crystal's boyfriend since childhood (whom she has never agreed to marry).  A veteran of the Iraq War, Beau Willie is tormented by multiple demons.
  • Gilda (Phylicia Rashad) is the landlord of the apartment building who has seen it all and who wishes she could help some of her female tenants avoid their ongoing problems with men.  Gilda's apartment sits right between those inhabited by Crystal and Tangie.
Phylicia Rashad as Gilda
  • Rose (Macy Gray) is a down-and-out drug addict who earns extra money performing illegal abortions.
  • Kelly/Blue (Kerry Washington) is the social worker from Child Protective Services who has been contacted by Gilda to check up on the health and welfare of Crystal's children.
  • Donald (Hill Harper) is the detective who is Kelly's loving, supportive, and devoted husband.
  • Juanita/Green (Loretta Devine) is a nurse who is helping to run a free women's clinic. When the audience first meets her, Juanita is trying to get a donation to her clinic from Jo. She is a big-hearted woman who has suffered the constant ups and downs of an on-and-off relationship with a man whose philosophy is that "a woman is a sometimes thing."
  • Frank (Richard Lawson) is Juanita's boyfriend whose infidelity inspired one of Ntozake Shange's most popular poems ("Somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff.").
Loretta Devine as Juanita

It's interesting, of course, to hear how the creative team now feels about the project of transforming For Colored Girls from a poetic stage property into a movie. According to Ntozake Shange:
"For Colored Girls is almost 40 years old. I let her grow up and go away from me. I realized that the generation of women who had come of age with me now have a generation of children and grandchildren that need to be exposed to this legacy. I'm grateful Tyler chose my work. My readers need to see it."
Tyler Perry recalls that:
“Ntozake told me that each poem represented a different experience from a woman.  I thought the best way to express that in cinematic form was through an ensemble drama, with women of different generations at different stages in their lives. I knew I could not tamper with the poems.

I chose about 14 of her poems and wrote a film around them, while leaving their language intact. The dialogue that I wrote had to have a certain rhythm so it would flow into Ntozake’s poems. In that way, I felt I could follow my vision while staying true to the original play.”
Crystal (Kimberly Elise)

From the standpoint of a viewer who saw the original play in New York, I felt that Perry's adaptation did Shange's writing proud, transforming it into a believable narrative, casting each character with exquisite care, and allowing a multigenerational cast of superb African-American artists to bring a treasured piece of literature to life with grace, dignity, and dramatic integrity. While everyone in the cast has moments to shine, special kudos go to Janet Jackson, Anika Noni Rose, Kimberly Elise, and most especially Loretta Devine (who, since her early days as Lorelle in the original cast of Dreamgirls, has continued to amaze audiences with the depth and breadth of her talent). Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * * * *
Over at the American Conservatory Theatre, audiences finally got to experience the third chapter in Tarell Alvin McCraney's trilogy of Brother/Sister PlaysMarcus, Or The Secret of Sweet. Beautifully directed by Mark Rucker, the play focuses on Marcus Eshu, the son of Elegba (the shape-shifter character in McCraney's trilogy). A handsome and inquisitive young 16-year-old, Marcus (Richard Prioleau) has been deeply troubled by a mysterious and recurrent dream involving lots of rain and a stranger dressed in white.

Marcus's two best friends are Osha (Shinelle Azoroh) and Shaunta Iyun (Omozé  Idehenre). Shaunta Iyun keeps trying to get Marcus to confess that he's "sweet" (gay), but the closeted young man isn't sure what he really is.  After staying out too late, Marcus's mother, Oba (Margo Hall), grounds him. As he looks out the window, he encounters Shua (Tobie L. Windham), a young black man from The Bronx who is visiting relatives down in San Pere, Louisiana as a hurricane heads toward shore.

McCraney has done a superb job of capturing the delicate moment in adolescence before someone realizes that he actually has sexual yearnings. As he explains in his program notes:
"I learned that I wasn't average first. I was in fifth grade and I was 5'11" and I didn't want to play basketball, so automatically I was weird.  I was black and I was really tall and I didn't want to play sports, so clearly there must have been a problem.
All young kids demonstrating traits that are different from the mainstream, displaying some queerness, are sexualized really early. People see a young girl who is very tomboyish and say 'Oh, she's very mannish.' She gets a little older, and they say 'Oh, I think she might be a lesbian.' Saying those things is like saying to a heterosexual girl, 'Oh, I think you're going to like dick when you get older.'  They begin the conversation about sexuality before a person has clearly even had those thoughts.  Sexuality in our country, I will add, is not based on who you love, but on who you have sex with. It's a very clear distinction. It's whose penis, or not, you put in where.
When you begin to say things like 'You're gay, I think you're a fag,' it makes a child instantly begin to think 'Sex must be something that I want. Even though it's not on my mind, even though I'm really just interested in learning how to write cursive, something about me must be sexual -- and in a way that is different from everyone else.'  Those ideas are learned and are introduced at an early age, especially to kids who demonstrate some queer identity. I think the introduction of said ideas that early on is very harmful and unfair to children."
Shua, however, knows just what Marcus wants ("Did you want the dick for later?") and what he wants from Marcus. After a first encounter near the Bayou (where Marcus goes down on Shua, tasting a man's cock for the first time), Shua moves in for a little rear action. At that very moment, Osha and Shaunta Iyun appear. And guess what? Shua has been dating Osha and keeping Marcus on the down low!

Shaunta Iyun (Omozé Idehenre), Marcus (Richard Prioleau),
 and Osha (Shinelle Azoroh) (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Meanwhile, Marcus is desperately seeking information about his late father (whether he was straight, gay, bisexual, or had the same kind of "dreams' that have been haunting Marcus). But whenever he tries to get an answer out of the women who have known him since childhood (all of whom are played by Margo Hall), he runs into a solid wall of denial. His mother, Oba, doesn't want to talk about it. Osha's mother, Shun, isn't much help, either. Aunt Elegua is just one step short of bat shit crazy.

Aunt Elegua (Margo Hall) and Marcus (Richard Prioleau)
Photo by: Kevin Berne

Even Ogun Size (Gregory Wallace), whose brother, Oshoosi, supposedly knew Elegba, can't help him out. When Marcus spontaneously kisses Ogun at exactly the wrong moment, all hell breaks loose. Later, as Marcus  tries to explain his dream to Ogun, Marcus suddenly realizes who the man in his dreams must have been. Simultaneously, Ogun realizes that Oshoosi must be dead.

Marcus (Richard Prioleau) and Ogun Size (Gregory Wallace)
Photo by: Kevin Berne

The use of movement, inflection, and knowing glances has much greater impact on the audience than the stage directions spoken by McCraney's characters. The playwright freely acknowledges the impact his grandfather (a preacher) had on him during his youth:
"My first understanding of what theatricality was came from church. I watched how the congregation reacted to my grandfather and I realized, 'Oh, his pitch rises here in order to induce this.  The call and response, the use of the dramatic pause; the use of positioning (when the actor comes off the stage and stands in the audience and then goes back on the stage). I could see how music played a part. How the dwindling of time played a part.  Waiting and waiting and waiting until the final three minutes of church services to say the important messages, and how that spurs the ebb and flow of the afternoon. Those rules apply to everything."

While a great deal of attention has been focused on Richard Prioleau's breakout performance as Marcus, there are two other members of the ensemble who deserve kudos. Margo Hall has always been a wonderful character actor, but watching how she owns the stage as she shifts back and forth between three different women is a remarkable demonstration of craft.  Jared McNeill scores strongly as Terrell, the young wise-ass in pursuit of Osha.

Special mention should also be made of Gregory Wallace's tender and poignant portrayal of Ogun Size. In past seasons, Mr. Wallace has often been cast in clownish roles that require a great deal of feyness and flamboyance. This is the first time I've seen him actually inhabit the character of a black man whose heart and soul have been broken.  The role finally gives Wallace a chance to show why he deserves to be taken more seriously as an actor. The following video captures some moments from rehearsals.

Marcus, Or The Secret of Sweet continues through November 21 at A.C.T.  You can order tickets here.

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