Kimberly Elise: 'For Colored Girls,' A Selfless Act Director Tyler Perry's new film, For Colored Girls, is an adaptation of a 1977 Broadway play and tells stories of abuse and empowerment. Host Michel Martin speaks with actress Kimberly Elise about her role as Crystal and criticism that the film unfairly demonizes black men.

Kimberly Elise: 'For Colored Girls,' A Selfless Act

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Ms. NTOZAKE SHANGE (Playwright): Somebody, anybody, sing a black girl song. Bring her out to know herself, to know you, but sing her rhythms, hearing, struggle, hard times, sing her song of life. Let her be born and handled warmly.

MARTIN: That was Ntozake Shange, reading from her award-winning play - or as she prefers, choreopoem, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf." It began over three decades ago as a collection of seven poems, and ended up on Broadway and in theaters around the world as a theatrical experience that captured the lives of women, and black women in particular, in a way that little else had that had come before.

And now "For Colored Girls" has a new life. It has inspired a major motion picture, directed by Tyler Perry. It's opening tomorrow, November 5th. In a few minutes, we will speak to the playwright herself, Ntozake Shange. But first, though, we hear from Kimberly Elise, one member of the high-powered ensemble starring in the film production. And she's with us from New York. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. KIMBERLY ELISE (Actor): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, Kimberly Elise, you are just too young to have understood what "For Colored Girls" meant when it first premiered.

Ms. ELISE: Yes, I was too young, and I lived in Minnesota. And the play was in New York.

MARTIN: But do you remember hearing about it? I'm just wondering how you first understood what this play - choreopoem meant, particularly to African-American women.

Ms. ELISE: I absolutely remember hearing about it. And what mesmerized me the most was the energy around the women who would speak of the play. And it was just this mysterious, mystical thing that I could only witness from afar, from the outside, as a little girl. But I definitely felt the power of it and the effect it had on women.

MARTIN: And the reason I ask is that because you are so young, that the idea of not seeing yourself in theater - I don't know if that ever even occurred to you, what that was like to not have plays that had people who look like you in it, or not have television shows that look like you in it.

Ms. ELISE: Well, first of all, I'm not that young.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ELISE: I am 43. So I do have a great memory of television growing up, where the only African-American on TV that I could see was Janet Jackson on "Good Times," and that was about it for the shows that were age-appropriate for me. And I could feel the absence of people who looked like me on TV. So I do have a reference for that. And you know, it's still kind of happening today.

MARTIN: What made you want to participate in this project?

Ms. ELISE: So many things. Tyler and I had worked together before, and we wanted to work together again when it was right. And he called me with this project. And it terrified me, the idea of doing it. I - like I said, I knew the power of it, how beloved it was. And that's scary, to take on such a responsibility. But as an actor, that's also exhilarating. And the character that I'm playing, Crystal, is the pivotal character. And I knew that there was a great responsibility coming with playing her. So it was scary, really scary, but also extremely exciting to dive in to some deep, deep waters.

MARTIN: Well, you've been in deep waters before. I'm thinking about, you know, "Beloved," the book by Toni Morrison, which was turned into a film, which also had a - sort of a great weight to it, and it was very important to many people - a controversial project, as this one also is. When you have something that means so much to so many people who have memories of it, who may be able to recite the work themselves, how do you approach something like that? Do you try to block it out? Or do you think about it?

Ms. ELISE: Well, yeah, you know, I take it into consideration, but I also have reverence for the material. And I'm going to do right by it for my own, personal reasons. And with this particular piece, I felt an extra drive and obligation to do it because I would be playing a woman who represents many, many women who go voiceless. Crystal is suffering in a relationship that has domestic abuse because her husband - who was played brilliantly by Michael Ealy - is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome because of the atrocities he experienced in war. And it's a commentary on society and the abandonment of our soldiers when they come home, and how families are left to pick up the pieces.

So for me there were so many bigger reasons to take on this role and to go into that deep painful, painful place that I knew I was going to have to go to. Because it's just bigger than me. It's just so much bigger than me. And if I have the gift and opportunity, this is what it's for.

MARTIN: With that wonderful introduction, let's just play a - just a short clip from one of your exchanges in the film with Michael Ealy, who plays your husband. And here's just a short clip.

(Soundbite of film, "For Colored Girls")

Ms. ELISE: (As Crytal) Well, maybe you shouldn't drink tonight.

Mr. MICHAEL EALY (Actor): (As Beau Willie) Are you saying I got a problem?

Ms. ELISE: I'm saying you need to take your meds.

Mr. EALY: Now you're telling me what I should do.

Ms. ELISE: I'm telling you what I think. I'm not accusing you of anything.

Mr. EALY: I'm trying. I'm trying, Crys.

Ms. ELISE: I know. I know why you get mad sometimes. I get mad. Sometimes when you drink, you get out of control. Don't drink tonight.

MARTIN: I'm not going to - I don't know, spoil isn't even the right word, but I'm not going to describe what happens next because there are those who may not be familiar with it. But as you said, it is one of the most pivotal pieces in the film and of course, in the choreopoem. And it's just shocking. I mean, it's one of those things that just haunts you for days. How did you keep Crystal real and not just as a symbol?

Ms. ELISE: I think the biggest responsibility - or one of the biggest responsibilities as an actor is not to judge, because when you judge your character, you start standing outside of them. And if you're living within it, you allow the character to go through whatever it has to go through and find its way out, whatever that's going to be. And for me, that's just really surrendering, stepping aside, stepping outside of my own way and letting the character flow.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. And I'm speaking with Kimberly Elise about the new film "For Colored Girls." Of course, it's based on the choreopoem by Ntozake Shange. And it premieres tomorrow.

To that point of making the characters real, as opposed to issues, one of the criticisms of the play when it first premiered - which I think persists to this day - is that it's awfully tough on black men. They're unfaithful; they are brutal; they are - well, hurtful in all the ways that men can be hurtful to women. I mean, the film deals with - the play - infidelity, rape, all of the above. And I wondered if you have any thoughts about that.

Ms. ELISE: I mean, I understand it, you know. I think it goes back to just, really, the lack of overall representation of blacks in the arts, period. And so we get extra sensitive when we feel like there are repetitive images of us. But, you know, just this summer there was a fantastic film called "Just Right," starring Queen Latifah and Common. And he played a beautiful, wonderful man. And there is more of a balance. We're seeing more positivity. This particular piece was exploring these issues with these women, and these were the male players.

And if you're going to examine issues like domestic abuse or rape or anything, you're going to have a bad guy in the picture. The point is, these things happen to women. How do we heal from that? How do we move on? How do we strengthen ourselves, and empower ourselves, when we find ourselves in these situations? And you know, to tell it honestly, you have to go there.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go - and we thank you for going there - is, I have to ask you what it was like to work with, you know, Phylicia Rashad, Whoopi Goldberg, you know, Kerry Washington, Janet Jackson.

Ms. ELISE: Thandie, Anika.

MARTIN: Thandie, Anika. I mean (unintelligible). I just have to ask, was it nerve-wracking to work with all these divas?

Ms. ELISE: No, no, it was wonderful.

MARTIN: Was it diva-licious?

Ms. ELISE: It was like we all realized this is something so much bigger than any one of us, and we need each other to make this work. So it was like running a great race. And one girl would have the baton and run as fast as she could and then pass it off to the next, and she'd run as fast as she could. We were there to support each other. It was fantastic.

MARTIN: Well, you're now a veteran of two pieces of work that are adapted from much-loved pieces of literature. First, of course, "Beloved," and now this. And when do you get to do a stupid film about nothing? I mean, is that in your future?

Ms. ELISE: I would love to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ELISE: You know, I tell people, I laugh. I really have a very joyous, happy life. Adam Sandler, please call me.

MARTIN: You can do - what, "Jackass 4," or something like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Kimberly Elise stars in the new film "For Colored Girls." She was kind enough to join us from New York. Thank you so much for joining us, and our very best wishes to you.

Ms. ELISE: Thank you, Michel, it was a pleasure.

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