In 1974, Ntozake Shange's choreopoem "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf" made its stage debut, combining poetry, dance and music, and most significantly, placing the black female experience center stage. In lyrical, honest, angry, funny and tender language, Shange's "colored girls" evoked the feelings woven into the fabric of black female life in America. Within two years, the play became a Broadway sensation, won an Obie and Tony Award, and would eventually be produced in regional theaters throughout the country.
Now, thirty six years later, filmmaker Tyler Perry adapts this landmark work for the big screen, integrating the vivid language of Shange's poems into a contemporary narrative that explores what it means to be a woman of color - and a woman of any color - in this world.
FOR COLORED GIRLS weaves together the stories of nine different women - Jo, Tangie, Crystal, Gilda, Kelly, Juanita, Yasmine, Nyla and Alice - as they move into and out of one another's existences; some are well known to one another, others are as yet strangers. Crises, heartbreaks and crimes will ultimately bring these nine women fully into the same orbit where they will find commonality and understanding. Each will speak her truth as never before. And each will know that she is complete as a human being, glorious and divine in all her colors.
FOR COLORED GIRLS is written for the screen and directed by Tyler Perry, and based on the stage play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf' written by Ntozake Shange.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
In 1974, a San Francisco-based poet and dancer named Ntozake Shange put pen to paper to describe the pains, struggles and paradoxes of being a woman of color in America. Today, her prose poem/play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf" stands as a literary classic that touched so many in its day and has continued to be influential and relevant ever since. Developed in bars, coffee houses and performances spaces in Northern California and New York City, "For Colored Girls" went on to win Tony, Obie and Outer Circle Awards in 1977, and ran for 747 performances on Broadway. The book of the play has been in print since 1975, and the most recent edition is in its 21st printing. "For Colored Girls" is taught in high school and colleges, and is a staple of theater classes and college productions.
With the arrival of the feature film FOR COLORED GIRLS, movie audiences everywhere will be able to experience Shange's watershed work anew. Adapting the play for the screen, director Tyler Perry has integrated Shange's poetry into a dramatic narrative derived from her tales of love, betrayal, loss, treachery, resilience and sisterhood. The film brings together a star-studded, multi-generational cast of black actresses: Janet Jackson (TYLER PERRY'S WHY DID I GET MARRIED TOO?, POETIC JUSTICE); Loretta Devine (CRASH); Kimberly Elise (TYLER PERRY'S DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN, THE GREAT DEBATERS); Macy Gray (LACKAWANNA BLUES); Thandie Newton (CRASH); Phylicia Rashad ("The Cosby Show"); Anika Noni Rose (DREAMGIRLS); Tessa Thompson (MISSISSIPPI DAMNED); Kerry Washington (the upcoming NIGHT CATCHES US); and Whoopi Goldberg (THE COLOR PURPLE).
FOR COLORED GIRLS is Perry's tenth film with Lionsgate, and the first production of his 34th Street Films. Perry's flagship company, Tyler Perry Productions, is home to his family-friendly, inspirational comic dramas that have made him one of America's most successful filmmakers, and elevated his signature creation, Madea, to star status. Perry launched 34th Street in 2008, conceiving the imprint as a specialty arm that would also work with outside filmmakers. When the idea of a film of "For Colored Girls" came up at 34th Street, Perry was enthusiastic, but finding a workable script proved difficult. Finally, Perry decided to tackle the project himself. "'For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf' is a brilliant, important work that should have a place in film history," he states. "It had been 35 years, and still it hadn't been made into a film."
But the play certainly presented challenges to adapt, given its unorthodox structure, its poetic text and, not least, the reverence it commands as a creative and cultural landmark. Perry did not approach the project lightly. "This is my tenth film, and it took me nine to feel ready to tackle something like this," he acknowledges. "I was nervous because it's such a powerful, iconic piece and there are so many people who live, eat, breathe and die 'Colored Girls.' I had to be sure I could get it right."
Perry met with Shange in New York City. "We had a conversation about the play and making it into a film, and what I saw for it," he recalls. "All the help I could ask for, Ntozake gave me. And she told me, 'Do what you feel.'"
Shange welcomed the idea of her work reaching new generations, and notes that she had no hesitation about handing over the reins to Perry. "'For Colored Girls' is almost 40 years old and I let her grow up and go away from me," the author comments. "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."
In shaping the film's narrative, Perry turned to Shange's original text. "Ntozake told me that each poem represented a different experience from a woman," he explains. "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 chose about fourteen of the poems and wrote a film around them, while leaving their language intact."
Producer Roger M. Bobb has been working alongside Perry since DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN. He notes that the filmmaker 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 perspectives. 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."
Perry integrated the verses of Shange's poem into the film's dialogue. Some of the poems lent themselves to conversational dialogue; others flowed as a form of stream-of-consciousness speech from the characters Perry created. The dialogue that he wrote would serve traditional functions of advancing story and illuminating character, but also complement Shange's voice. "I knew I could not tamper with the poems. And 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."
The play's opening poem, "Dark Phrases" became a choral round that introduced the film's nine major protagonists - Crystal, Gilda, Tangie, Kelly, Alice, Yasmine, Juanita, Jo and Nyla - on an ordinary morning; each took up the poem's verses in turn as she starts her day. Perry placed most of his characters in Harlem, inspired by the "Colored Girls" poem called "I Used to Live in the World." "In that poem, a woman living in Harlem describes her 'universe of six blocks.' So a lot of the film takes place in within a small geographic radius, where you have strangers crossing each other's paths as they live their lives," says Perry. "All of their paths finally converge around one woman and one woman's struggle, and that is the story of Crystal in the poem 'A Night With Beau Willie Brown.'"
Paul Hall soon joined Perry and Bobb to produce FOR COLORED GIRLS. Hall, who had seen the original Public Theatre production, was impressed by Perry's screenplay. "Tyler's challenge was to take what is essentially a choral poem and make it a piece of cinema. And what he did is pretty remarkable," says Hall. "He organically wove the poetry into the action, so that actors wouldn't necessarily stop and say, 'I'm reciting a poem now.' It was beautiful. It maintained what Ntozake's original work was about, but it also took it into the present and kept it relevant."
The film is the third collaboration between Perry and actress Janet Jackson, who first starred for the filmmaker in TYLER PERRY'S WHY DID I GET MARRIED? Jackson recognized that FOR COLORED GIRLS would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. "It was an exciting opportunity to be part of a multi-generational cast of African-American actresses. I never dreamt that that would happen to me," she marvels. "I remember the play being on Broadway when I was a kid; as a matter of fact, I came to visit my brother in New York when he was doing 'The Wiz,' and it was playing then. I was ten years old. Thirty-three years later, to be part of a film version - it's incredible."
Jackson's character, Jo, is high-powered businesswoman who has virtually willed herself to forget her tough upbringing. "Jo's very driven, and she's not the nicest person on the block," comments the actress. "She doesn't want to be reminded of her past - how she grew up, where she grew up, what it was like. She wants nothing to do with it, nothing to do with the people that come from there. She just wants to look toward the future and what she's focused on now, which is her fashion magazine. That's her baby."
Whoopi Goldberg was intrigued to learn that Perry was planning a film of "For Colored Girls." As it happened, Goldberg had been in the midst of planning a Broadway revival of "Colored Girls" when the 2008 financial meltdown scuttled the project. She was keen to be part of the film, and took on the role of Alice, a white-clad, Bible-toting fanatic who spends her days proselytizing on Harlem's streets. "Tyler's an extraordinary young man, and I wanted to work with him. You don't see many moguls who have their own movie studio, and who are able and self-reliant. That's an unusual person to me," Goldberg comments. She found Alice compelling on a number of levels. "Alice is intent on purifying herself for God. In her mind, that means wearing white. Except she can't quite give it a hundred percent, because she does like to buy odd, colorful socks. I think she gets them for, like, sixty cents, and it doesn't matter what the pattern is. I think at one time she was all that her socks are; now the socks are the only sort of whoosh that exists for her."
Perry turned to his DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN star, Kimberly Elise, to portray the pivotal role of Crystal, a quiet woman grappling with unrelenting challenges at home and at work. The actress notes that she and her co-stars shared a passion for Shange's play. "We all know 'For Colored Girls.' It's sort of a rite-of-passage play for an actress of color," she comments. "When Tyler called me and told me that he was going to be making a feature film of it, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it. 'For Colored Girls' is such an important piece, but a lot young people don't get out to the theatre and aren't aware of it. To marry such magnificent material with a medium that will reach multiple generations seemed perfectly logical and totally appropriate and absolutely something I wanted to be a part of."
In Shange's play, Crystal is the longtime sweetheart of a returning Vietnam vet, Beau Willie Brown, the father of her two children; in the film, Beau Willie is one of the many volunteer soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Beau Willie has sunk into a dark, volatile emotional state, but Crystal cannot bring herself to leave him. "Crystal's relationship with Beau Willie goes back to childhood, so she has a sense of loyalty to him and recognizes that he was once a good man. So she's carrying the weight of that, the love of this man who was once so beautiful and wonderful, who's now damaged and dangerous and scary," Elise observes. The actress created an air of stillness around her character, who confides in no one. "Crystal is like so many women who walk through life and you have no idea that they're troubled and pained; they keep it very deep inside and do what they have to do to forge ahead."
Loretta Devine was a young actor in graduate school when "Colored Girls" became an Off-Broadway sensation in 1976. She successfully auditioned for a role, but had to turn it down when she was unable to obtain the scholastic leave of absence. She vividly recalls the impact that Shange's play stirred. "Ntozake Shange was new to everybody, and it was really a revolutionary piece. At that particular time, there wasn't any theatre about black women and the things that concerned them most in their lives. Ntozake touched on women's true emotions and experiences; there were poems about race, about abuse, about love, about date rape, about abortion. She didn't leave out anything."
Having missed the chance to appear in the original New York production, Devine was thrilled when Perry tapped her to play Juanita, a nurse who has opened a women's health-and-wellness clinic at a Harlem community center. Juanita doles out condoms and a message of empowerment to young women, but struggles in vain to resist the charms of her two-timing boyfriend. "Juanita's an older woman that's still trying to find someone to love her," says Devine. "And she's holding onto a lot of the things that a younger girl would hold onto. She wants to be attractive and vivacious, so she's put her braids in and she has her green nail polish and short dresses and high heels. And she projects a happiness that may not really be totally true."
Juanita's tangible yearning for love stands in marked contrast to the proudly anti-romantic attitude of Tangie, the sharp-tongued bartender played by Thandie Newton. Tangie claims her right to pleasure for its own sake, refuses to let her conquests dawdle in her apartment, and apologizes to no one, least of all her mother, Alice. Observes Newton, "Tangie is feral. She is fierce, she is uncompromising; she is destructive, of herself and everything around her. She is in a lot of pain and she vents that pain with alarming effects, some very comical, some very upsetting, but all truthful."
A frequent target of Tangie's wrath is her disapproving next-door neighbor, Gilda, a widow who is also the building's manager. Played by Phylicia Rashad, Gilda is somewhat sphinx-like, a woman who keeps tabs on her fellow residents, while offering little information about herself. As Rashad puts it, "Gilda's not an easy person to know, but as the story unfolds you learn more about her."
Gilda's concern about her other neighbor, Crystal, prompts her to place a call to the city's Child Welfare Agency. Kerry Washington portrays Kelly, the social worker who responds to that call. Kelly's emotional attachment to her job is further complicated by her own desire to start a family with her detective husband. Comments Washington, "Although overwhelmed with the task, Kelly is all about helping and ensuring the safety of children. Her story is ultimately about her relationship to family and the value she places on the role of motherhood."
The function of dance in Shange's original play finds an echo in Anika Noni Rose's character, the dance instructor Yasmine. At her studio located in the same Harlem community center as Juanita's clinic, Yasmine is both a teacher and a mentor to high school girls. Says Rose, "Dance gives Yasmine's students hope and a language to express themselves without words. Girls at her studio are eligible for a college scholarship; Yasmine got the scholarship ten years ago and now she's able to help other girls get it. She's very community-minded and she just radiates good feeling."
One of those scholarships has been offered to Alice's youngest daughter, Nyla, played by Tessa Thompson. Fresh out of high school and alive with the youthful optimism, Nyla faces a personal crossroads that eventually leads her to the cramped, dirty apartment of a woman named Rose. Portrayed by singer/actress Macy Gray, Rose is a ghostly woman for whom the universe has indeed shrunk to six blocks. Thompson notes that Nyla's crisis "forces her to grow up," and fundamentally changes her relationship with her mother. Says Thompson, "To Alice, Nyla has always been the golden child, especially in contrast to Tangie, her older sister. In a lot of parental relationships, I think there is a pivotal moment when you become your own person, separate from your parents. Oftentimes that happens with some sort of fall from grace, and that's the case with Nyla."
Shange's play ultimately is about overcoming pain and adversity, much of it rooted in the thorny realm of romantic relationships. In adapting her stories of love, deceit and abuse, Perry created several male characters, each with a distinct identity, back-story and emotional shadings. At the same time, the filmmaker sought to remain true to the play's female perspective and its depiction of the unhappiness and trouble caused by husbands, lovers and semi-strangers. "'For Colored Girls' is about a black woman's journey, a black woman's experience," Perry affirms. "Ntozake Shange had written all of these women from her head, and my job was to tell their stories. So I tried to create male characters that were believable in their flaws, and not just cardboard bad guys."
Michael Ealy (SEVEN POUNDS) joined the cast as the tormented Army veteran Beau Willie. In preparation for the role, Ealy did research on PTSD, and the obstacles recent veterans have faced in seeking treatment for it. "Beau Willie's struggling to come to grips with the trauma that he's experienced in battle, but he just can't get a hold of it. It's eating him alive on so many levels," the actor remarks. "I think Tyler did a wonderful job of humanizing Beau Willie, and all the men in the story."
Rounding out the cast are Hill Harper (CSI: NY) as Donald, a detective who is a loving, understanding husband to Washington's Kelly; Omari Hardwicke (KICK-ASS) as Carl, a stockbroker who is married to Jackson's Jo; Richard Lawson (HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK) as Frank, the smooth-talking, faithless lover of Devine's Juanita; and Khalil Kain ("Girlfriends") as Bill, a seemingly nice guy who woos Rose's Yasmine.
Shooting and designing the film
FOR COLORED GIRLS had a thirty-one day production schedule: filming for six days on location in New York City, and twenty-five days in Atlanta, both on location and at the Tyler Perry Studios. Perry worked with his key collaborators, including his longtime production designer, Ina Mayhew, and director of photography Alexander Gruszynski (KINGFISH: A STORY OF HUEY P. LONG, Perry's I CAN DO BAD ALL BY MYSELF) to create a look for the film that was grounded in day-to-day realism. Mayhew scouted apartments around Harlem, getting a feel for the different kinds of homes tucked away behind anonymous hallways, and identifying the blocks and buildings for the film's exterior sequences. She searched the city for the kind of well-worn, seemingly endless stairway that Perry had in mind to introduce the Harlem apartment building where Crystal, Tangie and Gilda live; once she found the staircase, she made detailed diagrams so it could be rebuilt at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta. Read more
TYLER PERRY's (Screenwriter, Producer and Director) inspirational journey from the hard streets of New Orleans to the heights of Hollywood's A-list is the stuff of American legend. Born into poverty and raised in a household scarred by abuse, Tyler fought from a young age to find the strength, faith and perseverance that would later form the foundations of his much-acclaimed plays, films, books and shows.Read more
In the Zulu language of Xhosa, ntozake means "she who comes with her own things" and shange means "she who walks like a lion." Fearless in her quest to affirm the realities of women of color, NTOZAKE SHANGE (Based upon the stage play entitled 'For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf') (pronounced 'n-toe-ZAHK-kay SHONG-gay) demonstrates that her name reflects her approach to both her art and her life. Read more
THE ART OF ADAPTATION