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for colored girls and Who Else?: Reading Theater as a Site of Cultural Transformation

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Abstract:

Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (1976) is widely regarded as a milestone in contemporary American theater—in its formal experimentation, feminist themes, and celebration of cultural differences. This deceptively simple piece, consisting of dance and dramatic monologues about the experience of ‘bein alive and bein a woman and bein colored,” ran for two years on Broadway and marked the beginnings of identity conscious theater in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and second-wave feminism. Over the past thirty years, Shange’s “choreopoem” has become not just a canonized piece of dramatic literature but also something of an African American cultural institution. Satirized in George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum, quoted in Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, and riffed on in titles of books related to black women’s beauty care, for colored girls has come to function as a kind of touchstone for black female experience. This paper, however, asks that we understand for colored girls less as a marker of fixed identity and more as a site of identity re-invention. For despite Shange’s introduction in the widely used Macmillan edition of the play, which details its circuitous route from Bay Area bars to the Broadway stage, scholars have done little to examine the work’s fascinating production history and its relationship to the sphere of identity politics that the play engages.
Via an investigation of the work’s production across different institutional, geographical, and historical sites, I thus want to approach for colored girls not so much as a product of Shange’s self-expression, but as a site of cultural transformation. How did this work, which began in California as a celebration of multiracial feminism with a mixed race cast, eventually spark a heated controversy in New York about black identity? How, for that matter, did it shift from grass roots activism into a successfully marketed Broadway commodity? And finally, how do we understand this hit show’s utter failure to connect with London audiences shortly after its remarkable run on Broadway? To explore these questions, I look at three main sites of production: the Bay Area from 1974-’75, Broadway in 1976, and London in 1979. By foregrounding production history and thereby unsettling what we take to be “the text” of for colored girls, I rely not only upon the Macmillan edition and scholarly analysis of the work, but also upon the first published version of the piece (1975) by Shameless Hussy Press in Berkeley, a published interview with the founder of Shameless Hussy in which she discusses feminist cultural production in the 1970s, selected interviews with Shange, advertising materials, and critical reviews of the original Broadway and London productions. My goal, in sum, is to dislodge some of the assumed wisdom about Shange’s most famous work and to animate the shifting identities and cultural boundaries played out in its institutional history.
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Name: The American Studies Association
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MLA Citation:

Cho, Nancy. "for colored girls and Who Else?: Reading Theater as a Site of Cultural Transformation" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186395_index.html>

APA Citation:

Cho, N. , 2007-10-11 "for colored girls and Who Else?: Reading Theater as a Site of Cultural Transformation" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186395_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (1976) is widely regarded as a milestone in contemporary American theater—in its formal experimentation, feminist themes, and celebration of cultural differences. This deceptively simple piece, consisting of dance and dramatic monologues about the experience of ‘bein alive and bein a woman and bein colored,” ran for two years on Broadway and marked the beginnings of identity conscious theater in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and second-wave feminism. Over the past thirty years, Shange’s “choreopoem” has become not just a canonized piece of dramatic literature but also something of an African American cultural institution. Satirized in George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum, quoted in Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, and riffed on in titles of books related to black women’s beauty care, for colored girls has come to function as a kind of touchstone for black female experience. This paper, however, asks that we understand for colored girls less as a marker of fixed identity and more as a site of identity re-invention. For despite Shange’s introduction in the widely used Macmillan edition of the play, which details its circuitous route from Bay Area bars to the Broadway stage, scholars have done little to examine the work’s fascinating production history and its relationship to the sphere of identity politics that the play engages.
Via an investigation of the work’s production across different institutional, geographical, and historical sites, I thus want to approach for colored girls not so much as a product of Shange’s self-expression, but as a site of cultural transformation. How did this work, which began in California as a celebration of multiracial feminism with a mixed race cast, eventually spark a heated controversy in New York about black identity? How, for that matter, did it shift from grass roots activism into a successfully marketed Broadway commodity? And finally, how do we understand this hit show’s utter failure to connect with London audiences shortly after its remarkable run on Broadway? To explore these questions, I look at three main sites of production: the Bay Area from 1974-’75, Broadway in 1976, and London in 1979. By foregrounding production history and thereby unsettling what we take to be “the text” of for colored girls, I rely not only upon the Macmillan edition and scholarly analysis of the work, but also upon the first published version of the piece (1975) by Shameless Hussy Press in Berkeley, a published interview with the founder of Shameless Hussy in which she discusses feminist cultural production in the 1970s, selected interviews with Shange, advertising materials, and critical reviews of the original Broadway and London productions. My goal, in sum, is to dislodge some of the assumed wisdom about Shange’s most famous work and to animate the shifting identities and cultural boundaries played out in its institutional history.

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