Playwright Sees 'Choreopoem' On Big Screen

The new film "For Colored Girls" is an adaptation of the stage play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf," by Ntozake Shange. Michel Martin speaks with Shange about the film adaptation and the legacy of the play more than three decades after its debut on Broadway.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Long before there was a film there was a play, or rather a choreopoem. And here to talk about that play, we are joined by the playwright herself, Ntozake Shange. And she's with us now from New York. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. NTOZAKE SHANGE (Playwright"): Oh, thank you so much for having me and inviting me.

MARTIN: I wanted to start with you the same place I started with Kimberly Elise, which is to say it's very hard, at least for me, to describe for people who weren't there, what it meant to have this piece emerge. And I just wondered if you can help us to characterize just what the reaction was, you know, for you. I mean, I personally - just (unintelligible) set the scene, I mean there are people who never went to theater before going, three and four and five times. So can you describe it?

Ms. SHANGE: Well, it was quite something. I remember when we opened at Henry Street on the Lower East Side, the way Lower East Side, we were coming from the subway and I saw this huge crowd going down Henry Street. And I said, what are these people here for? And she said, they're here to see you. I said, but the theater only seats 99 people. And she said, well, they'll all have to come back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHANGE: But with no advertisement and no publicity, it was really hard to understand where these women came from, who told them something that made them feel compelled to come to the Lower East Side and fill up all the sidewalks.

MARTIN: I hope you don't mind my mentioning to those who are not aware that you are still in recovery, if we can (unintelligible) from a stroke, which you suffered some time ago. How are you doing?

Ms. SHANGE: I'm doing much better, thank you. I had - there were three strokes and I lost my ability to read and write and speak and it really put me by the wayside for a number of years. And I am getting stronger. My legs are still fairly weak and I still slur my words some because I don't have good control of my jaw.

MARTIN: Is it frightening for you to speak to the public in this way? Is it something that you had to steel yourself to do? And I just want to mention, I am personally very grateful that you are willing to do this, because your work certainly speaks for itself.

Ms. SHANGE: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: But is it something frightening?

Ms. SHANGE: Well, it was frightening because it's frightening not to be able to be heard. I knew what that feeling felt like from another source before. Sometimes I have to - I can't move my mouth so I can't say the word, and then I get really frightened because I don't sign and I don't - I can't always write. So I have to depend on people to either read my face or come near me so I can write it for them if I can. And that's very frustrating. And it's just been rough. That's (unintelligible) it's been rough.

MARTIN: Well, I would imagine for someone who has given voice to that which has not been spoken, how frustrating that must be.

Ms. SHANGE: Oh, it is.

MARTIN: Could we go back to the beginning then? You talked about knowing what it's like not to have a voice before. Is that in part where these poems began?

Ms. SHANGE: When I say yes, when I said it's impossible to understand the silence we were bearing when I was a child, women and young girls were dealt with as sort of toys. And you just (unintelligible) chatter and then go in the kitchen and let the men talk. This is like in the 1950s, this is not, like, 2,000 years ago.

And so I knew what that kind of silence felt like. Luckily my father and my mother liked us to talk, so they encouraged us to talk, so that the girls in my house, they're all very powerful speakers and powerful agents of their own will, as is my brother. So we are very grateful to our parents for having encouraged us to make full use of all of our intelligence and all of our bodies.

MARTIN: You know, I want to actually play a short clip from the film. Loretta Devine has a wonderful character in the film. And I'm going to ask you how you feel about the film in a minute. But I just want to play something that speaks to what we were just talking about, this idea of, you know, women who are not taken seriously and as a consequence didn't take themselves seriously. And I just want to play a short clip from one of the poems she delivers in the film. And here it is.

(Soundbite of movie, "For Colored Girls")

Ms. LORETTA DEVINE (Actor): (As Juanita) Well, I do it all the time in my class. You just say, my love is too and then you fill in the blank.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (as character) My love is too sanctified (unintelligible)...

Ms. DEVINE: All right now.

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (as character) My love is too magic to have thrown back on my face.

Unidentified Woman #3 (Actor): (as character) My love is too Saturday night to have thrown back on my face.

Unidentified Woman #4 (Actor): (as character) My love is too complicated to have thrown back on my face.

Unidentified Woman #5 (Actor): (as character) My love is too music to have thrown back on my face.

Ms. DEVINE: (as Juanita) Yes, and you remember that when a man tries to walk off with all your stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And the great thing about that clip, of course, is that you get to hear a number of other stars in the film. You get to hear Kerry Washington, Janet Jackson and Anika Noni Rose. And it's not a secret to anybody that it can be hard to adapt pieces of literature to film. So I wanted to ask, did you have trepidation about turning the work into a film? And how do you feel about it -how it came out?

Ms. SHANGE: Well, I had trepidation about having it adapted to film. But I decided that "For Colored Girls" is now 37 years old and she could go out in anybody's arena and function. And so that's what I decided. And how does it feel? It feels very wonderful to have opened up my demographic to Mr. Perry's demographic so that my viewers and readers will become part of a larger group. And I'm very happy about that because I think this piece is my gift to women and girls forever and ever. It may not be all I have, but it's one solid thing I have to leave for girls and women around the world.

MARTIN: Ntozake Shange is an award-winning author and playwright. Her choreopoem, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf," has been adapted into a new film. It premieres tomorrow. And she's with us from New York. Thank you again.

Ms. SHANGE: Well, thank you very much, Michel.

MARTIN: To watch the trailer or read an excerpt from the choreopoem, you can go to our Web site. Go to npr.org and under programs click on TELL ME MORE.

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