Ieasha Prime has performed in several productions of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, including a yearlong run on Broadway. She laughs about one common denominator:
"All of them were directed by men."
That seems odd for Ntozake Shange's anthemic feminist piece, which premiered in New York in 1976 and won several awards, including an Obie. The piece features women of color of different generations, each represented by a color of the rainbow, and all struggle with aspects of relationships with men, including the harsher realities of domestic abusers and cheating partners. The work doesn't follow a conventional narrative and has been called a "choreopoem" for its combination of poetic monologues and dance.
"It's not a musical," Prime says. "But it brings together poetry, dance and music and that's sort of the way women of color work. We get to be us — unapologetically."
Prime plays the Lady in Blue in the production opening at Anthony Bean Community Theater Friday. She also choreographs the show, collaborating with Bean, who directs.
A bit of happenstance brought the two together on the project. Prime grew up in Washington D.C. and started working on the 2000 New York show when it was in early production in Baltimore. Its successful run eventually took it to Harlem and then an off-Broadway theater and then Broadway. Prime married a New Orleanian and moved here in 2008, and has focused on teaching dance. She saw Blues for an Alabama Sky at Anthony Bean Theater in April and when she met some cast members, she found out For Colored Girls was slated for production. Soon she started talking to Bean about it, and claimed both a role and choreography duties.
"What I love about this show is that we can go from African dance to cabaret and everything in between," Prime says. "There's bluesy stuff and then there's Latin dance and salsa and Haitian movement."
Bean added musical elements to the show, including a chorus that contributes musical interludes. It also highlights generational gaps and things that are more constant in both growing up and having relationships.
"We do a lot of split stage scenes," Prime says. "So there's one scene where a young woman is graduating and she's listening to Beyonce, and another woman is thinking back to her early life when she graduated, and she's listening to The Dells."
Bean has directed feminist-themed, all-women shows before, including Crowns, and he scheduled For Color Girls because it is a popular show, he says. But he also notes that it's not the most comfortable show for men.
"I've seen Colored Girls several times," he says. "It's controversial because there are no redeeming qualities for many of the men. All the women have a story to tell about no-good men. I have some problems with that. We're not all bad."
Shange was in her mid-20s when wrote the piece, and already had experienced a failed marriage, had attempted suicide and had suffered racial harassment, particularly during the years her family lived in St. Louis and there was resistance to the busing program that sent her to a mostly white school. She had a very successful academic career, graduating with honors from Barnard College and pursuing a masters degree in American studies. She focused on writing poetry when she finished school, out of which grew For Colored Girls. (Shange starred as Lady in Orange in the orignal Broadway production.)
Prime says Bean's directorial approach has been similar to George Faison's (The Wiz, Porgy and Bess), who directed the 2000 New York version. Both sought to bring out the softer voices and focus on the women.
"There are situations that have hopeless elements," Bean says. "But you want the woman to find hope. We're not just screaming and hollering. We want to see beauty too."
Prime notes that Shange's poetry is very candid and revealing.
"It's real. It deals with domestic violence and a woman who gets a venereal disease because her man has been sleeping around," she says. "We can't say those things don't happen. It's hard to talk about but it's necessary to talk about it to heal and to grow, and that's what theater is for. There are beautiful moments, honest moments and harsh moments. But that's what women go through."