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Campus play revisits same message from 27 years ago

By Zachary Araki
On October 10, 2017

The 2017 cast of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” performs in Vonnie Borden Theatre. Twenty-seven years prior to this production, the play was directed by Kay Butler on campus. Both productions sought to raise awareness and empower women of color. Annie Goodman/The Lion’s Roar

Shelly Sneed plays the role of Lady in Purple in the university's production of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf." Annie Goodman/The Lion's Roar

“For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” returned to campus 27 years between productions with the same message of awareness and empowerment.

The choreopoem written by Ntozake Shange was first performed on Broadway in 1976. A production of the play directed by Kay Butler ran in the Vonnie Borden Theatre from Apr. 25-28 in 1990. Senior art major Sarah Balli brought the play back to the university from Oct. 3-6 this year. Alumna Cené Robinson, the Lady in Blue in the 1990 production shared her thoughts on the production.

“I’m a big fan of the work,” said Robinson. “I respected and loved Ntozake Shange’s poetry, and I was really excited to bring African-American women to the stage at Southeastern. Up until that point, there were not a lot of shows for us. I’ve done a couple parts but nothing specifically for black women. I think it was a great opportunity to bring that to the stage and to show the strength and the diversity of all of the different sizes, shapes and colors that were on stage at the time. I think it was a real identifying and strong performance.”

Sponsored by Delta Sigma Theta, the 1990 production was also performed for African American History Month at the Levy Building. Interlibrary Loan Department Supervisor Barbara West performed as the Lady in Orange in the 1990 production. West discussed how the audience responded to the play in 1990.

“It was a lot of controversy back then,” said West. “It was the first African-American play on campus, all black cast, so it was a little resistance.”

West was unruffled by the production’s reception.

“It didn’t bother me,” said West. “It’s just like now. There’s total chaos in the world, but I know who I believe in. It’s gonna be alright, so it really didn’t bother me. It’s just that awareness thing. The part that gets me is we did it then, and we still have the same issues how many years later.”

Kaysha Barre, a sophomore criminal justice major and the Lady in Green in the 2017 production feels the play’s message is still relevant 27 years later.

“Even though it was a while ago, not much has changed,” said Barre. “There’s still controversy. There’s still separation almost, so for those who want to hear what has to be said, for those who connect to the messages being brought, it’s sort of saying you’re not alone. Hard times are still here, and you can always come up from them.”

Taylor Bennett, a junior English major and the Lady in Yellow in the 2017 production shared why the play’s message is worth being revisited.

“The topic of race never goes away,” said Bennett. “It never will, and we still are not united as an equal front. So, back in the ‘90s, they were just really discovering about AIDS with race, and now we’re bringing it up again when it once again is a problem so people can still connect to that. They can still connect to personal feelings.”

Robinson believes the story will not be diminished by time.

“It’s always going to have a voice,” said Robinson. “It’s always got a place and a story to tell even if you’re just trying to understand the human experience. I think it still speaks, and that’s one of the things that makes it lasting contemporary theater.”

West shared her thoughts on the play returning to campus.

“It’s telling a lot of different stories,” said West. “My hope is that it reaches somebody because somebody is somewhere going through at least one of those stories that these ladies are portraying. Hopefully, it helps in some way. Now is a good time to redo it with all the chaos.”

Balli directed the 2017 production. She discussed the play’s relevancy in current times.

“Even though these poems are written in the 1960s, very unfortunately these themes that Shange explores in the poems are more relevant today in 2017 than they were back in the 1960s, especially in this racially tense time that our society finds itself in,” said Balli. “I believe that these themes it explores are conversations that need to happen. As a theater artist, I find it’s my duty to society to talk about things that people in our American society don’t really want to talk about. A lot of the themes that this play explores are often topics that we Americans just want to sweep under the rug, and as a theater artist, it’s kind of our messy job to pick up the rug and brush it out.”

According to Balli, the issue is multifaceted and not attributable to a single problem.

“I don’t know the answer, but part of this production, part of theater and why we do it is to try and find these answers together, and really by doing that, as a theater artist, I’m not offering the answer,” said Balli. “I’m not saying like if we all come together and be kind to each other that that’s gonna solve racism. What I am doing, though, is providing a platform for us to ask these questions and to get the conversation going, and it’s their job as the audience to continue that conversation and to hopefully find the answers together.”

West discussed why she decided to participate in the 1990 production.

“I was pushed into it actually, coerced by the director that wanted to bring me out because I was like this little, shy, timid person, and my supervisor at the time who was Sheila Delacroix, she was auditioning for it,” said West. “She drug me along, and I did.”

West described her feeling performing in the 1990 production as “exuberated.”

“Parts of each of one of those ladies, I could feel, I could relate to,” said West. “So, to be a part of it, I felt good. The African-American community was sucking it up because this was the first time we had anything like this. It felt good to be a part of that.”

West hopes the play will not have to be revisited after the 2017 production.

“My biggest thing is why are we still having to tell the same story all these years later, and nobody seems to understand,” said West. “That’s my biggest thing. Hopefully this time around, somebody will get something out of it, and we’ll see some changes because unless you walk a mile in my shoes, you really don’t know.”

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