Is Tyler Perry The Right Man To Tell Black Women's Stories?

Variety has broken the news that Tyler Perry has been asked to "write, direct and produce an adaptation of the 1975 play " 'For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.' " I can't say I'm thrilled.

For those of you not familiar with Ntozake Shange, this summary at enotes provides some clarification:

for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf is a choreopoem, a poem (really a series of 20 separate poems) choreographed to music. Although a printed text cannot convey the full impact of a performance of for colored girls..., Shange's stage directions provide a sense of the interrelationships among the performers and of their gestures and dance movements.

The play begins and ends with the lady in brown. The other six performers represent the colors of the rainbow: the ladies in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. The various repercussions of "bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma" are explored through the words, gestures, dance, and music of the seven ladies, who improvise as they shift in and out of different roles. In the 1970s, when Ntozake Shange herself performed in for colored girls..., she continually revised and refined the poems and the movements in her search to express a female black identity. Improvisation is central to her celebration of the uniqueness of the black female body and language, and it participates in the play's theme of movement as a means to combat the stasis of the subjugation. In studying this play in its textual, static format one should, therefore, keep in mind the improvisational character of actual performance and realize that stasis is the opposite of what Shange wanted for this play. In fact, in her preface she announces to readers that while they listen, she herself is already "on the other side of the rainbow" with "other work to do." She has moved on, as she expects her readers to do as well.

It's a complex, nuanced piece, and seeing Tyler Perry getting a writing credit gives me serious pause.

Directing? Fine.

Producing? Cool.

But writing and adapting it? From someone who writes flat, two-dimensional woman characters in all of his work? Even under the best of circumstances, I would be skeptical of a black man tackling a project like this. To bring Shange's vision to light would take an understanding of why this work of art is so deeply intertwined with black women's articulation of their own struggles under racist, patriarchal oppression - something that unfortunately, many still deny to this day. Black women's voices are often lost in discussions of race (because all the blacks are men) and discussions of gender (because all women are white) and Ntozake Shange was beyond brave to put down all of these ideas and present them for public consumption even in the face of heavy criticism from black men when the play was released:

[T]his is the second round of a debate sparked in 1976 by the blockbuster success of Ntozake Shange's choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. It spread with the publication of Michelle Wallace's Black Macho and Myth of the Superwoman (1980). These two works were the subject of widespread and acrimonious debate from many sectors of the black community. Vernon Jarret of the Chicago Defender likened for colored girls to the pro-Ku Klux Klan film Birth of a Nation, and dismissed it as "a degrading treatment of the black male" and "a mockery of the black family." Perhaps the most controversial statement about Shange and Wallace, however, was an article by Robert Staples, "The Myth of the Black Macho: A Response to Angry Black Feminists," published in The Black Scholar in March/April 1979. Identified significantly as "the noted sociologist on black sex roles," Staples reflects in his essay a tendency in the current debate (as in most discussions of Afro-American literature) to read literature in terms that are overwhelmingly sociological.

Staples argues that Shange and Wallace were rewarded for "their diatribes against black men," charging for colored girls with whetting black women's "collective appetite for black male blood." He attributes their rage, which "happily married women" lack, to "pent up frustrations which need release." And he sympathizes with the black male need for power in the only two institutions left to black control: the church and the family. During the 1960s, Staples continues, "there was a general consensus - among men and women - that black men would hold the leadership positions in the movement." Because "black women held up their men for far too long, it was time for the men to take charge." But those like Shange and Wallace came under the powerful sway of the white feminist movement, he argues, they unleashed the anger that black women had always borne silently. For witnessing this anger, he concludes, they were promoted and rewarded by the white media.

This choreopoem is serious business, and it is not to be treated lightly, by those who do not live the story it tells.

Just as I had to put down Octavia Butler's Kindred, a book in which distinctively black pain poured off each page and took up residence in me that I dreamed the plot at night and woke up bathed in sweat, I've avoided fully engaging with Ntozake Shange's masterwork, absorbing it bit by bit instead, waiting for the day when I am strong enough to experience the whole. And what a masterful whole it is. The opening lines, spoken by Lady in Brown, let you know what you are in for:

i can't hear anythin
but maddening screams
& the soft strains of death
& you promised me
you promised me...
somebody/anybody
sing a black girl's song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
carin/struggle/hard times
sing her song of life
she's been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn't know the sound
of her own voice
her infinite beauty

When Joan Morgan penned When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, she begins her book describing the scene in New York surrounding the twentieth anniversary of Shange's play, and makes mentions of her own memories of the cheoropoem:

Few hissy fits can compare to the one I threw twenty years ago when my mom announced she was taking her husband and not her precocious woman-child to see Shange's play. I'd been transfixed by the poster since the first day it went up on our community center's wall. Afro-puffed and arms akimbo, I'd stare at it every day, struck by the poster-woman's sad, sad eyes and the eeriness of the title, scribbled in child-like graffiti across an imaginary tenement wall.

It didn't matter that I didn't know a damn thing about suicide. Death, yes - since departed colored girls are part of the ghetto's given - but none of them had left in ways as exotic as checking out on their own volition. But I reasoned that the play had something to do with being black, female, and surviving - and those were intuitive if not conscious concerns for any ten-year-old colored girl growing up in the South Bronx 'round 1975. [...]

My obsession with for colored girls... carried over well into adulthood, long after I snuck into the adult section of the public library, stole the book, and fell in love with words and images I didn't quite understand. It remained among my favorites as I grew older and sought balmy remedies for tempestuous emotions about black men, women, and myself. Seeing it performed was always cathartic and I never missed an opportunity - except for that first run on Broadway in 1975.

I've long since forgiven my mother, of course. In my pre-adolescent selfishness I failed to see that she too was a colored girl. The play held crucial parts of her - parts she needed to share with her husband and not her ten-year-old daughter.

Shange's work is a major representation of black female womanhood, and even those of us who cannot find ourselves in her stories can still feel the painful echoes. So I am unsure that someone who has not lived this experience can do it justice. Still, despite my hesitations, I am still pleased that for colored girls... will make it to a wider audience. Ntzokake Shange is reportedly pleased, and has been sharing the news according to this report from The Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder:

"I'm going to tell you a secret, but then you can tell everybody," Ntozake Shange announced at her April 23 appearance at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Center. "For colored girls is going to be [made into] a movie." Shange's appearance was part of the Givens Foundation for African American Literature's NOMMO African American Authors Series.

The audience in the center's Cowles Auditorium let out a cheer of surprise and joy at the news that Shange's "seminal work," as she called it in her own words, For colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, which was first performed on stage 35 years ago, is finally becoming a film. (An Emmy-nominated PBS television American Playhouse version of the play, which starred Shange, Lynn Whitfield and Alfre Woodard, was broadcast in 1982 and is available on DVD.)

Furthermore, Shange confirmed that three African American actresses had "signed contracts" confirming that they would star in the upcoming film: Oscar winner Halle Berry, Oscar nominee Angela Bassett, and Grammy winning singer-turned-actor Jill Scott. The excited audience loudly gasped as Shange said each of the actresses' names.

I would love to see Jill Scott in this, but I am torn. And I'm torn in the same way I was when I heard that they were remaking A Raisin in the Sun with Sean Combs as Walter Younger. I want these works to be experienced and to reach those who wouldn't normally attend plays or read black literature.

But what are we sacrificing in the process?


Lionsgate Taps Tyler Perry for 'Rainbow'
[Variety]
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf [enotes]
But Some Of Us Are Brave
Changing Our Own Words: Essays On Criticism, Theory, And Writing By Black women [Google Books]
Kindred
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf: A Choreopoem [Google Books]
When Chickenheads Come Home To Roost [Powell's]
Ntozake Shange Still Standing Up For "Colored Girls" [Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder]