The storytelling going on in Laurel Mill Playhouse's current production of Ntozake Shange's highly acclaimed "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf" plays a little differently than anything performed at the Playhouse before.
Directed here by Laurel resident Michael V. Hartsfield, Shange's script forgoes a specific plot — she has tossed spelling and vernacular to the winds — and seven African American actresses are known only by the colors they wear.
In 1975, Shange's unusual play came to life in a bar outside Berkeley, Calif. The show debuted on Broadway in New York City in 1976 (with Shange portraying the Lady in Orange), and earned a Tony nomination for Best Play.
Producer Maureen Rogers, of Laurel, said the play is the first choreopoem (a term for the new art form Shange created with the piece) performed at the Playhouse.
Through raw poetic monologues accompanied by dance and music, the script fearlessly tackles the realities of rape, abandonment, abortion, AIDS and domestic violence as experienced by women of color coming of age in America.
Sorrow often manifests in poetry and art, but managing to create stark beauty from such difficult issues is a credit to this playwright. And Hartsfield's lively cast succeeds in making every story feel personal, as if it were happening to a sister or close friend.
At times reminiscent of an urban ballet and boldly executed, Brook Urquhart's choreography is lovely; while Patrice Woody's ethereal costumes emphasize the interpretive theme.
Multicolored handprints covering the walls of Hartsfield's set may appear overwhelming to look at at first; but when the ladies in their rainbow of colors enter, the walls fade and the visuals blend beautifully.
As the Lady in Brown, Playhouse newcomer Yvonne Paretzky deftly leads the prelude with "dark phrases," establishing the play's abstract locale.
The Ladies each represent U.S. cities — Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Baltimore, San Francisco, Manhattan and St. Louis — making a statement that oppressive attitudes prevail throughout American culture.
Many of the poems (there are 20 in all) are ensemble pieces led by whichever actress is telling her story, but every Lady finds solo moments.
As the Lady in Yellow, Nicole Woody captures the audience as she begins her character's journey as a young virgin losing her innocence on "graduation night."
Yasmon Holman, of Laurel, plays the Lady in Blue, a dancer obsessed with blues music in "now i love somebody more than" who shines equally as a young girl in "abortion cycle #1."
And Paretzky's rendition of "toussaint" is delightful.
Playhouse newcomer and Laurel resident Ghislaine Dwarka Smith, as the Lady in Red, takes the stage by storm beginning with her performance of "no assistance."
Played by Lynette Franklin, the Lady in Orange's refrain, "we gotta dance to keep from crying, we gotta dance to keep from dying" (in "i'm a poet who") creates one of many memorable moments.
In "somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff," actress and model Chaseedaw Giles, as the Lady in Green, laments esoteric parts of herself stolen by an unappreciative lover.
And playhouse regular La'Angel Hall, of Laurel, whose singing vocals have blessed every show she's appeared in at the Playhouse, stands out as the Lady in Purple in all of her performances, including "latent rapists" and "no more love poems #2."
All of the roles are superbly acted.
Hartsfield, Urquhart, accompanist/vocal coach Mayumi Baker-Griffe and the cast and crew have much to be proud of in the evenness of this powerful ensemble production.
If there is a standout, it would be Smith's wrenching portrayal in "a nite with beau willie brown," which contains shocking subject matter that leaves viewers reeling.
Magically, an uplifting moment of strength and hope forged by the bonds of sisterhood follows.
Considered a landmark piece of African American literature and black feminism, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf" contains mature subject matter and language that is inappropriate for young children.
"For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf" continues through Oct. 19, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; with a Sunday matinee Oct. 19 at 2 p.m. General admission is $20. Students 18 and under, active duty military and seniors, 65 and over, pay $15. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2.