Movies

Critical Mass: Bob Mondello, Trey Graham On 'For Colored Girls,' Then And Now

The cast of 'For Colored Girls' i

When The Rainbow Is Enuf: The cast of For Colored Girls. From left to right: Anika Noni Rose (as Yasmine), Kerry Washington (as Kelly), Janet Jackson (as Jo), Kimberly Elise (as Crystal), Phylicia Rashad (as Gilda), Loretta Devine (as Juanita), Tessa Thompson (as Nyla) and Thandie Newton (as Tangie). Lionsgate hide caption

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The cast of 'For Colored Girls'

When The Rainbow Is Enuf: The cast of For Colored Girls. From left to right: Anika Noni Rose (as Yasmine), Kerry Washington (as Kelly), Janet Jackson (as Jo), Kimberly Elise (as Crystal), Phylicia Rashad (as Gilda), Loretta Devine (as Juanita), Tessa Thompson (as Nyla) and Thandie Newton (as Tangie).

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I pretty much wore out my original cast album of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf — and shortly after seeing the show, too, back in 1976 when it was a hit at Broadway's Booth Theater. I'd never been particularly intrigued by poetry, but Ntozake Shange's narrative verse struck chords in me, and must have struck them hard, because I listened over and over to the angry, funny, ferocious music of her words, reliving the stage experience and wearing grooves in the vinyl deep enough that I eventually had to buy another copy.

So seeing Tyler Perry's film adaptation — its title shortened to For Colored Girls, its script padded with connective tissue linking what had been largely unrelated poems — was an odd experience. I knew going in that the stylized visuals that had made the work so effective on stage would have to go. But I hadn't quite registered what that change was likely to do to the speakers. Or the poetry.

Janet Jackson i

Woman In Red: Janet Jackson as 'Jo,' Tyler Perry's interpretation of the archetypal character 'Red' from Shange's original play. Lionsgate hide caption

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Janet Jackson

Woman In Red: Janet Jackson as 'Jo,' Tyler Perry's interpretation of the archetypal character 'Red' from Shange's original play.

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As it turns out, some very fine performers — Phylicia Rashad, Loretta Devine, Thandie Newton and Kimberly Elise among them — are acting the hell out of the poems, with results that are simultaneously more intimate and less affecting as the film labors to turn figures who were archetypes on stage — The Lady in Red, The Lady in Yellow, etc. — into characters of flesh and sinew, and to make the verses they speak sound like dialogue. I'd say the film mostly achieves what it sets out to do, and is consequently less than it wants to be.

In fact the differences interest me more than either the product itself or my own opinions about it. And because my web editor had mixed feelings about it too, we thought we'd try to unpack them a little here. Plus, I wanted to talk a bit about how the original worked — because even as a hit show, For Colored Girls could only have played to something like 600,000 patrons in all of its 747 performances on Broadway. (The Booth has roughly 800 seats.) Tyler Perry's version, opening in 2,000 theaters this weekend, will probably reach millions.

Bob Mondello: The stage production called itself a "choreopoem" — seven women, distinguished primarily by dress color, using poetry and movement to explore aspects of the experience of being a black woman in the U.S. in 1976. Obviously that's too artificial to work on the big screen for a mainstream audience. So what Tyler Perry has done is to treat Ntozake Shange's words as dialogue, with an emphasis on how natural the speech patterns are. He's added lines here and there as connective tissue, and restricted movement to the dance classes taught by one character and attended by another. The idea is clearly to make a movie, not a poetry slam; in fact if audience members left the theater unaware that they'd been hearing poetry, I'm guessing Perry would be ecstatic.

Trey Graham: I expect he would indeed. Though to me those stretches sounded pretty different from the stuff around them. Maybe that's just my theater-critic face flapping, but at least I think I always noticed when the film stepped away from the new dialogue — the lines Tyler Perry wrote — and went back to Shange's stuff. And to me those moments seemed more like monologues, not dialogue. The action pretty much stops, and somebody does a soliloquy. I'm not saying it felt stagy, exactly, because it was remarkably successful; Perry moves back and forth, in and out of those soliloquies, pretty fluidly. But there's a heightening at the start of each one — subtle (surprisingly so, for Tyler Perry?) but significant, and certainly deliberate. I don't remember if it was a music cue starting up, or a sudden stilling of the camera, or a tightening of the shot or what. Probably all three at different times, and more tricks besides.

Bob: On stage the women were archetypes, not individuals. Characters had to be created from scratch with each poem. And those characters were from all over the country — Houston, Chicago, etc. Now each actress is playing a single personality, not an archetype, and the characters all live in New York City. In fact all but a couple of them live in a single tenement building.

Phylicia Rashad i

Stereotype Or Archetype?: Phylicia Rashad's 'Gilda' embodies the 'Wise Mother' persona. Lionsgate hide caption

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Phylicia Rashad

Stereotype Or Archetype?: Phylicia Rashad's 'Gilda' embodies the 'Wise Mother' persona.

Lionsgate

Trey: That building is kind of a crutch, isn't it? I expect there will be reviewers who list that in the "Con" column. Still: Would you think I was insane if I said maybe Tyler Perry has kept the archetypes in mind? Could be I'm giving him too much credit, and certainly critics of all stripes have just been slaying him over this movie. I'm not even sure I believe myself when I say this, but bear with me: Rashad as Wise Mother, Whoopi Goldberg as Otherworldly Conjure-Woman, Janet Jackson as Emasculating Success Who's Secretly Vulnerable? The difference between archetype and stereotype is what, novelty? The specificity and the roundedness of the characterization? You're gonna tell me he doesn’t clear that last bar, right?

Bob: Point taken. Perry's always been most comfortable with types in his other movies – it's a convenient shorthand, no? What's different here is that Shange's language makes her women specific and down-to-earth, something Perry's tried to emphasize on screen by having them inhabit a down-to-earthy environment. On Broadway, there was a huge flower at center stage, and to the best of my recollection, nothing else in the way of scenery. What you see onscreen is a realistically gritty New York City.

Trey: Except for Janet Jackson's magazine-editor office, of course. And her apartment. And when the other lady throws the party at the local community center — which turns out to have a vast rooftop. Which someone can afford to set up with picnic tables and lights (and if I remember correctly a marquee), as though the community center's highly paid party planner got hold of Tyler Perry's credit card. But that rooftop is apparently not as nice as it looks, because only the protagonists seem interested in hanging out there; everybody else stays downstairs at the indoor part of the party, which is being held in either the most interesting room in the world or simply The Place Where The Extras Hang While The Leading Ladies Put A Button On Their Storylines. That scene, in addition to going on for what seemed like days, struck me as a huge false step in terms of the film's look-and-feel.

Bob: Yeah, yeah. On the other hand, it's a plotless evening of poetry that has to end somehow. Cut Perry some slack. I want to circle back to those poems. They were declamatory originally — the actresses had to project to the theater's back row — and though they were united by theme, they were essentially unrelated. There was no attempt to tell a coherent evening-long story. It was about lots of different moods and styles, some comic, some conversational, some narrative. Onscreen, they're not just delivered conversationally, they're edited down to make room for all those "book scenes." And one iconic poem about a woman whose boyfriend is abusive to her and her children — which caused gasps in the stage version and won Trazana Beverly her Tony Award — gets eliminated almost entirely and acted out instead. It's a bit like doing Hamlet, but eliminating "To be or not to be” or replacing it with a film montage.

Trey: I suspect that scene is going to cause more consternation than anything else in the movie. I can imagine the sequence being just shattering onstage, where you have to build pictures of the violence in your head. But on film it's going to live or die based on whether the audience is thinking about anything else, right? Anything other than how successfully Kimberly Elise and Michael Ealy are selling the confrontation? It's not just about whether the poetry is getting into your brain, or even whether their performance works; it's also about Janet Jackson sitting in the car, the believability of her reaction, a viewer's consciousness of the camerawork, even stuff like "Wow, I wonder how they hid the safety harness in that shot?" If any of that takes you out of the moment, you're done for, right?

Bob: I talked before about my reaction to the show, but it's worth noting that the original For Colored Girls wasn't just well-received. The response was rapturous, from critics and from audiences. It ran for almost two years — this strange "choreopoem" thing — two years, on Broadway. It became canonical; it gets performed at schools, at theaters all over; people talk about it as a formative experience. The response to Tyler Perry's version has inevitably been, well, colored by that fact. So far the reviews have largely been negative, with critics saying he's doing the same melodramatic thing he usually does. As for audiences ... well, we'll see.

Trey: Two critics I know, both African-American men, got into a bit of a shouting match earlier this week on the question of Tyler Perry and what some say is his tendency to demonize black men. (Which is interesting, considering that another slam you hear is that Perry's films always serve up women who just can't be happy, no matter how smart or successful or interesting they are, without the love of a good plain man.) Add to that the sense that the connective tissue Perry contributes to the film seems so much less artful than Shange's poetry — the language so much less interesting, the situations so like the ones in his other films and his stage plays — and I suspect there's going to be a whole lot of arguing about this picture.

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