Ntozake Shange’s iconic choreopoem gets a 40th anniversary production in Kansas City

Productions centering on and celebrating women of color were rare when playwright Ntozake Shange published For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Was Enuf in 1979. Identified only by the color of their clothing — Lady in Red, Lady in Blue, Lady in Yellow and so on — the play’s seven characters perform a “choreopoem,” combining intimate poetic monologues with movement and music.

Widely considered to be a seminal work of the African American theater canon, For Colored Girls ran for over 750 performances on Broadway. It was only the second play by a black woman to do so after A Raisin in the Sun. Today, its examination of how women of color process problems like date rape and abuse in a sexist and racist society remains incredibly relevant. For the play’s 40-year anniversary, a new production is opening at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre this October.

To bring the classic work to the stage, the theater recruited Los Angeles-based director Khanisha Foster. As an alumnus and the current director of screenwriting at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, she spent years hearing about “how rich” Kansas City’s cultural scene is.

“When [the Rep] called and asked me if I would direct it, I was like, ‘Yeeesss!’ ’Cause it’s one of those plays that’s always in my body and always on my mind,” Foster says. “We’re really excited to break open the work with these very talented local actors who bring so much.”

The Los Angeles-based writer and actor, whose directorial work includes Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and the adaptation of Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, is well-versed in helming stories about African American identity. But her connection with For Colored Girls in particular runs deep.

Foster has performed in three different productions of the choreopoem. Most recently, she played Lady in Blue at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre — the second-oldest African American theater in the country. The production, which closed just a week before Shange’s death last October and was helmed by directors close to the original Broadway team, gave the director a unique look into how it’s been passed down generationally.

“While [the show] has been a part of my life forever, I also got to hear the origin story and know the history of the play in a more in-depth way,” she says. “I’m thinking a lot about what this piece is now, today, and what it can be. Honoring our ancestors and looking forward into our own identities.”

As an avid fan of physical theater, Foster is working with a choreographer throughout rehearsals to individualize the choreopoem for each character.

“Our plan is to look at each actor and how they move in their own bodies and let that dictate the choreography of the show,” Foster says. “So, we’re not putting dance on top of them but looking at the movement of their own bodies.”

The theater piece’s emphasis on movement is also notable given that clichéd images of dancers are often criticized for white-washing and exclusion of different body types.

“I’m interested in how all of our bodies move, not just what you might expect,” she says. “We do have a stereotype about what a dancer looks like, so I like to see dance in all bodies.”

For Colored Girls has taken on many forms over the years, but expect this production to honor the choreopoem’s legacy and the individuality of the women it depicts.

“The play in and of itself seems to me to be about how strong we are as a community but also how important it is… who we are in our own identities,” Foster says. “[Exploring] what makes us unique and special and how that makes the community richer.”

GO: Tuesdays–Sundays, October 18–November 10. Kansas City Repertory Theatre, 4949 Cherry St., Kansas City, Mo. 6 pm. $35-$63. kcrep.org.

Theater Picks:

1. Who’s Your BaghDaddy opens on a group of government cronies attending a support group for people who started the Iraq war. Inspired by true events, the musical is an irreverent retelling of the events that led to “one of the most colossal military blunders in recent history.” Sept. 4-26. Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. unicorntheatre.org.

2. It’s always a good time to revisit Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer-winning classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which returns to the Kansas City Repertory Theatre this September. Widely considered one of the landmark plays of the 20th century, it tracks a couple’s unfurling marriage as they gather to celebrate the family patriarch’s 65th birthday. Fridays-Thursdays, Sept. 6-29. Kansas City Repertory Theatre, 4949 Cherry St., Kansas City, Mo. 6 pm. $35-$77. kcrep.org.

3. Rise Up recounts the story of 1961’s Freedom Fighters — activists who rode buses around Alabama and Mississippi to protest segregation. Told from the perspective of four modern-day students, it poses the question of how ordinary people can form movements — and how the past can inspire young people to shape the future. Tuesdays-Saturdays, Sept. 17-Oct. 20. The Coterie, 2450 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. $12-$15. thecoterie.org.

4. After picking up six Tony Awards (including the 2016 award for Best Musical), Broadway smash hit Dear Evan Hansen is headed to Kansas City this October. The musical follows shy teen Evan, whose fabricated relationship with a recently deceased classmate spirals out of control when the story goes viral on social media. Tuesday-Sunday, Oct. 15-20. Municipal Auditorium, 301 W. 13th St., Kansas City, Mo. kansascity.broadway.com.

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