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The play is called "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide: When the Rainbow is Enuf." And it has long been a cultural touchstone for African-American women. It ran on Broadway back in 1976 and today the movie version opens in theaters.
As NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, fans who deeply love the play are hoping the film measures up.
(Soundbite of music)
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Playwright Ntozake Shange called "For Colored Girls" a choreopoem: A sequence of poetic monologues with movement and dance that spoke to the joys and pressures and stereotypes of being a black woman.
(Soundbite of film, "For Colored Girls")
Ms. LORETTA DEVINE (Actor): (As Juanita) Ever since I realized there was someone called a colored girl or an evil woman, a bitch or a nag, I've been trying not to be that.
BATES: That's Loretta Devine, one of the ensemble cast in the movie version, which also includes Janet Jackson and Whoopi Goldberg.
When "For Colored Girls" debuted back in the mid '70s, black female voices were largely unheard on the American stage. People didn't know what to make of it. It was part poetry jam, part church, part therapy. It became a favorite of reparatory companies around the country. This "American Playhouse" version for PBS features Alfre Woodard.
(Soundbite of TV series, "American Playhouse")
Ms. ALFRE WOODARD (Actor): (As character) I love her. I made too much room for her. I almost walked off with all my stuff and I didn't know I'd give it up so quick.
BATES: Like a lot of the women who experienced the play for the first time, author Kim McLarin found the experience profound.
Ms. KIM MCLARIN (Author): I'm hesitant to say this, but I think it's really true, it pretty much saved my life.
BATES: McLarin discovered the play when she was asked to perform it. At the time, she was feeling lonely and adrift as one of a few black students in her New Hampshire boarding school.
Ms. MCLARIN: It was me and I didn't - I had never seen me on the page, on the stage before. And it was a gushing relief.
BATES: And, McLarin says, the play made her stop questioning the pressure to fit in.
Ms. MCLARIN: That's who I am. I'm not just, you know, the negative of everything that's around me.
BATES: The play's original director, Oz Scott, says initially he was surprised at how possessive all kinds of women felt about Shange's play.
Mr. OZ SCOTT (Director): I went to talk to a continuing education class at NYU. And there was a lot of older Italian women, older Jewish women and they all said "For Colored Girls" talked directly to them.
BATES: But while the play has devoted fans, it also has its critics, especially black men, who feel they got unflattering portrayals, as in this scene.
(Soundbite of film, "For Colored Girls")
Unidentified Woman #1: Get this, just last week, my XO man comes in saying, baby, I don't know how she got your number, I'm sorry.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Woman #2: No, no, this is it. Oh, baby, you know I was high. I'm sorry.
BATES: Even so, Loretta Devine says the men in "For Colored Girls" aren't demonized.
Ms. DEVINE: It's just examples of what can happen and there are specific reasons for why the men are doing what they're doing.
BATES: When Lions Gate Films announced Tyler Perry would take on "For Colored Girls," immediately, black critics and pundits said, in essence, oh no. Perry has become famous and wealthy for producing a string of slapstick comedies for the studio about black working class families, and more recently, middle class relationship melodramas. When she was asked if she had concerns about the adaptation, Ntozake Shange was diplomatic.
Ms. NTOZAKE SHANGE (Playwright): I'm hoping that there's enough of me in the show, enough of the language of the characters in this show to hold it really, really together.
BATES: English professor Neal Lester, of Arizona State University gets why some people are anxious about whether the play will make a happy transition.
Professor NEAL LESTER (English, Arizona State University): I don't think it's unlike our expectation for "Precious" a year ago, for those who knew "Push."
BATES: Professor Lester says there was the same kind of speculation when Perry produced a movie version of Sapphire's best-selling novel about an abused black girl. Even though "Precious" didn't follow "Push" exactly, he says, it received critical acclaim and acceptance.
Prof. LESTER: What we also found is that the genre on some levels really did translate. And that a different kind of emotion could be arrived at, but an emotional connection nevertheless.
BATES: Director Oz Scott believes the movie will float or fail on its own merits. But, he says, whatever happens won't significantly alter the deep visceral attachment many women feel "For Colored Girls" and its characters.
Mr. SCOTT: I think that the play is the play, the film will be the film and Ntozake's words will transcend all of it.
BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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