The first time Monica White Ndounou came across Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, she was a little girl, “probably not old enough to read it—but I did,” she says. “It made quite an impression on me.” She encountered it again in high school and college, and as a graduate student in theater at the University of Florida, she worked with Shange on the premiere of another of her works.
In the audio slideshow above, director Monica White Ndounou and cast members talk about the production of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. Photos: Alonso Nichols
Now Ndounou, an assistant professor in the Department of Drama and Dance, has brought for colored girls to Balch Arena Theater, with seven Tufts undergraduates in the starring roles of this “choreopoem,” as the author Shange calls it. The production is a series of 20 poems performed by unnamed African-American women who detail their struggles against many kinds of oppression.
“I wanted to present a work like this at Tufts to introduce students to a new or different type of theater so that we could begin to redefine what we understand as theater,” says Ndounou, who was joined in the production by choreographer Mila Thigpen, a lecturer in drama and dance.
When auditions were held in January, Ndounou was pleased with the students who turned out. “There was so much talent and interest, more than we had roles,” she says.
As the production advanced, she took a chance by letting the cast, some of whom had not acted before, get even more involved. “Part of my creative process has been to allow my cast to take a really active role in developing their characters,” she says.
In rehearsals, the actresses “invented their ages; they decided what time period they are in; they decided what sort of background experiences led them to the moment they are portraying in this production,” says Ndounou. “So some have brought very personal experience into that, and others are really inventing.”
One of the recurring elements of the play is the noose, a potent symbol of oppression of African Americans, who suffered from the threat of lynchings for long periods of U.S. history. Ndounou says she found herself wearing a scarf as the play was in production, and it became for her a link to that oppression. “The way I wear my scarves significantly changed when I began to work on this play,” she says. “I began to look for symbols of oppression, because that is what this work is really about—the oppression that women experience on a daily basis, in very subtle ways and sometimes in very overt ways. It is also a celebration of the ways we transcend such struggles individually and collectively.”
The production, Ndounou says, is an effort to bring people together, “to create a space where more voices can be heard, regardless of where the voices originate. We want to encourage everyone to really embrace what the performance of drama is really about, and that’s humanity.”