In 2009, I was asked to contribute an essay to the 2009 Writers Guild of America East Awards book. The theme was “Provoking Thought: Words That Made a Difference” and I decided to write about words that have never lost their power to turn me inside out. ____________________________________________
When I was a freshman in college, I was involved in a theater group called The New Directional Players. Our director announced that we were going to put on a production of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. I nodded knowingly, pretending that I was familiar with the play because, well, pretending to know more than I knew was one of my main campus activities.
However, when the first of the women began to read lines, I had to stop acting as if this was all old hat to me. I grabbed the sides of my chair as if it was in danger of taking off. I was electrified, but not by the acting. No disrespect to the actors, but what had me jazzed were Shange’s words. I flipped through the pages of the script, eager to speak the words for myself.
And then, slowly, I realized that there were no male roles in the play. Yes, the title should have been a give-away, but I’d missed it. As it turned out, the play had seven meaty roles for seven colored girls but not a single colored boy could be found anywhere. Dang! These were words I wanted to read. This was a world I wanted to step into. Not because I’d ever run away from home with Toussaint L’Ouverture or spent graduation night losing my virginity in the back of a Buick. Those stories weren’t my stories, but they were so real and urgent, they were like slaps across your face. Pouring over the pages I would never get to read, I recognized honesty – and realized how seldom you actually get to hear it.
And not for the last time, I realized I was not the demographic.
The men in the group were rehearsing some other piece I can’t recall for the life of me. Taking a break from our rehearsal, we sat and watched while the ladies in brown, yellow, purple, red, green, blue and orange read their lines. The director paced in the back of the room, then marched up to the women, pointing a dissatisfied finger at the lady in red. The director was becoming increasingly frustrated trying to explain what was supposed to be going on emotionally inside the character. I leaned forward listening, thinking yes, yes, what’s going on inside the character. To be honest, I don’t recall how I ended up on stage, whether the director asked for volunteers or if I was really that bold, but all I know is for a moment I was standing in front of everyone reading lady in red. And not just any ol’ lady in red monologue; I was reading the Beau Willie Brown monologue. Yes, I was. I got to stand up and clutch at the air while shiftless Beau Willie dropped my babies out of my tenement window. You have to take my word for it; you would’ve been weeping.
Seeing my enthusiasm, some of the older brothers felt obliged to take me aside to explain that for colored girls… was an attack on the black man. They walked me through the demonizing images and emasculating agenda but I was too far-gone. I had fallen head over heels for those lowercase letters, that bebop syntax, the narrative so powerful I could accurately claim this woman who was nothing like me could speak for me.
Actually, I have a dream.
An all-male version of for colored girls… No one’s in drag. No one’s pretending to be a woman. Everyone’s just living the lines and wearing rainbow colored shirts (a guayabera, a muscle-t, a button-down oxford, etc.). Don Cheadle will be the gentleman in yellow. Mos Def will be the gentleman in purple. Taye Diggs will be the gentlemen in green. Forest Whitaker will be the gentleman in brown. Anthony Anderson will be the gentleman in orange. Terrence Howard will be the gentleman in blue. And needless to say, I will be the gentleman in red.
And after the laying on of hands, we will sing about how we found God in ourselves and loved her fiercely.
You will be weeping.