Lady in Redbone Afropuff’s changes to “For Colored Girls”
Lack of story is, unfortunately, everybody’s story in “For Colored Girls.” There are, however, ways to turn a choreopoem into a movie that would preserve the element of story and the beauty of poetry. And there’s room for many other—I could be more polite here, but I’m just going to say it—improvements within Perry’s acclaimed version. Here’s my Monday Morning Quarterback commentary detailing seven changes I would make to “For Colored Girls”:
1. Erase Janet Jackson’s role. Not only was her acting not up to the level of that of her co-stars’, but her character was one of those superfluous ones I had hoped Perry would have learned to omit by now. Though it’s extremely difficult to develop nine characters—14 if you count the male roles Perry added, excluding Tangie’s nameless one night stands—in less than two hours, I found Jo to be the most disappointing among the women. Her trust issues with her previous husband are vague at best, and because Perry gives us post hoc explanation that she knows her husband is bisexual instead of giving us subtext hints, the payoff isn’t there at the reveal (the HIV test results).
Additionally, he drops Jo’s and Carl’s conflict about the money in favor of conflict that’s dramatic without any effort from the actors. Jo’s character is a means to three ends: Perry wanted to throw men a bone by writing in the prototype of the emasculating bitch. He satisfies the “down” brothas and sistas with a stereotypical wealthy and successful black professional who has forgotten where she came from. And he wanted to make frustrated black women happy by highlighting the down-low man. He’s there, but Carl doesn’t deserve “Sorry.” “You should admit you’re mean,” doesn’t ring true in their relationship. He isn’t mean; he’s confused about his sexuality and castrated in the only way you can castrate a man without actually using a knife: his wife cuts into his wallet.
Loretta Devine’s character, on the other hand, could have given Frank a goodbye “like you’ve never seen it” with “Sorry.”
2. Erase other superfluous characters and monologues. I have to applaud Perry for confronting the audience with date rape and for showing a sexual assault survivor report the crime to police. Nine out of 10 sexual assaults go unreported. But while I’m glad he included this incident, Yasmine’s role is such a small one that honestly, for the sake of a better movie, it could’ve been left out and the story—such as it is—as a whole wouldn’t have suffered for it. And her monologues about dancing in Spanish Harlem are among those that could have been omitted, easily. The barren social worker and her cautionary tale of what happens when friends share men could have been tossed, too.
3. It’s already Rated-R, so go ahead and go there. Perry’s directing is on point in the rape scene intercut with the opera and the scene in which Beau Willie drops the children out of the window. Seriously, I think those scenes are his best work. I think it was wise to not show the children’s heads splattering against the pavement—that would’ve been over the top and would have cheapened the horror we feel for Crystal. Perry misses an opportunity, however, with the back-room abortion. Instead of cutting away when the drunken woman is about to shove unsterilized forceps into Nyla’s vagina, he should’ve left us there with the pain, shame, disgust and trauma of a medical procedure performed without anesthesia and performed by a babbling drunk. It doesn’t have to be graphic; when I saw the play, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” the abortion was simulated through the actress’s bodily and facial contortions, and it was very effective.
The audience, also, can handle the abuse Crystal endures.
4. Go combination art house and traditional by using a chorus, in the tradition of classical Greek theater, to combine dialogue with verse. Let a chorus, which basically is the characters’ internal monologue, a population, or the narrators who push the story along by filling in some of the back story, perform the verse while the characters in the story remain in dialogue—except for the rare occasions in which the character might perform dialogue or call and response with the chorus, as in the chorus answering when the character screams at the heavens asking, “Why, God? Why?” Something like that. (Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite” employs a Greek chorus and it works quite nicely. And for a classical play with a plot that’s fairly easy to understand, I like the chorus in “Medea.” As in, Euripides’ tragedy, not Perry’s Madea.)
The adaptation of Crystal and Beau Willie’s relationship is done very well, perhaps because it is the longest poem in the original work and because the poem details the dialogue. But other transitions are not so smooth. I found the changes from dialogue to verse in “For Colored Girls” jarring, and on many occasions, they don’t fit the character, they don’t fit the situation or they allow the beauty of the words to overshadow the horror of the situation.
Imagine if a group of women yell and sing Nyla’s monologue—the one she recites when the police officer and social worker in the hospital ask her what happened—as we see her screaming on the table in that back room, bearing the torture of unsterilized foreign objects in her body as images of her mother shaking her head in disappointment take over her mind.
Or if the chorus had been the opera intercutting Yasmine’s rape, chanting that the man she knew and trusted enough to cook dinner for him in her own home is still a rapist and deserves to have “fists shoved up his ass” just as much as the stranger who attacks women jogging in the park. The monologue is poignant and Anika Noni Rose delivers it as such, but it’s a very long and poetic answer to a simple question from a cop, when the answer should be something like, “What? ’Cause I know him, ’cause we went on one date before this, ’cause I’ve seen him in the coffee shop talking to other people I know, that means he didn’t rape me? I told him he misread my invitation. I tried to push him away, and he ripped off my panties, threw me to the floor, and when I tried to crawl away to escape, he dragged me back, held me down and raped me, from behind, while I screamed no. See, these are the rug burns from him dragging me and these are the bruises I got ’cause he kept bumping my face against the hardwood floors. And just because I can tell you his name and his phone number and where he works and what train he catches to work every day, you can’t arrest him for rape?” Then maybe some you-men-stick-together anger, or the officer could tell her he’s just trying to prepare her for what’s coming if this makes it to trial, prepare her for how hard it is to prove rape, especially date rape, and then let her decide how she wants to proceed.
Also, the use of a chorus would help Perry to vary the camera shots. We didn’t need a close-up for every monologue, and showing the men’s reactions to the monologues aimed at the men—especially “Sorry;” I mean really, why was “tell your secrets about yourself to your face” not said to Carl’s face?—would have helped to bring the men into the story more.
I’m ambivalent about this one, but maybe the chorus could’ve handled “Stuff” while we watched a montage of the women actively changing their lives as a result of all the stuff that happened to them. “Somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff” is my favorite poem in the original choreopoem. I liked it in the film and I’m so glad Loretta Devine delivered it, but I think I would’ve loved “Stuff” if Juanita had used it to rail against the man who kept leaving her, laughing hysterically at times, truly ranting like a crazy woman, changing the “somebody” to “you,” as in, “I almost let you walk off with all of my stuff.” I sort of like that she’s telling this to the other women, though, because at the end, that’s the point: you can’t let anyone steal your sense of self worth, and you can’t give up the essence of who you are.
5. Stick with dialogue when in conversation and bring the poetry in through a writing workshop. Devine hints at this method when she says she has the women in her class at the clinic play fill in the blank: “My love is too [fill-in] to be thrown back in my face.” But a writing and/or performance workshop could have anchored the movie and given the characters a more realistic setting in which they could express themselves in verse. It works in “Precious.”
6. Go full art house, and film a choreopoem. The Buick part is odd—teens usually have sex at home, and what teen drives a Buick nowadays? Are there even Buick low riders?—but the movement happening when Nyla tells her dance class about sex in the back of a Buick is a fleeting glimpse of what the movie could have looked like had Perry gone full art house, left the script entirely in verse and made a film of a choreopoem.
And truthfully, unless done as a series of vignettes, which the original choreopoem is, with their one common thread being that the storytellers are black women, the stories are incomplete.
7. Finish the stories. Yasmine’s story isn’t finished. We leave her with her assailant dead and with her no longer wearing makeup or smiling her beautiful smile, but those are just facts, not story. How does she go back to being the smiling, happy person she was before she was raped? Or how does she find a new normal? We’re so used to cop shows solving crimes that we believe it’s over when the perpetrator is behind bars or dead, but the fact that a woman was raped will never change, and Yasmine is just starting to deal with that when the movie ends.
There’s so much more to explore within each of these women, but who wants to sit through all the hours it would take to really share the stories of the hundreds of women Ntozake Shange’s original work represents? Yasmine’s story could have been a movie all by itself. As could have Tangie’s, and Crystal’s, and Jo’s, and to some extent, Juanita’s.
The movie is about stuff that happens to 10 women who live in or are somehow connected to women who live in a 12-story walkup in New York. It’s not about how they overcome the stuff, how they ended up in that stuff, or what they do as a result of that stuff that happens to them. Tangie’s story is almost finished and I found it to be the most developed. The reveal, the moment when Whoopi Goldberg tells Tangie her father sexually abused her and Tangie confesses she suffered the same torment at his hands, is the best reveal Perry has ever written. And while Tangie isn’t the only one to do something as a result of all the stuff that happens to her—she stops sleeping around, Jo donates to the clinic, Loretta Devine puts her man out—she’s the only one who does something more than a one-time reactionary action.
And some non-improvement notes I just can’t fit anywhere else: Gilda (Phylicia Rashad) has keys to everyone’s apartment, so why didn’t she open the door and help Crystal?
What was up with Janet Jackson’s makeup? I know she was supposed to be a hard character, but you can be hard, cold and emasculating and still find foundation that matches your skin and still smudge your eyeliner.
I disagree with those who have said that Beau Willie being a vet is glossed over, but I do think what happened to him in war and once he got home from war is the movie I want to see so badly I may just write it myself.
The most developed characters and relationships (Tangie, Alice, Nyla and Gilda) are the ones that have no males in the flesh causing their problems. Interesting.
“For Colored Girls” has provided me with fodder for about 10 single-spaced pages of cinematic critique and cultural analysis thus far. But I invite you to help me finish the story. Forward this to friends, post it wherever you socially network, leave a comment, call me, or if you see me in public, come talk to me about it. One thing I wouldn’t change about this movie is the opportunity for lively discussions that the hype has created.