ArtsCentric delivers fiery staging of 'For Colored Girls'

Ntozake Shange shook up the theater world in the mid-1970s with what she termed a "choreopoem," performed by seven women, identified solely by the color they wore. The title of the work was, in itself, theatrical -- "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” -- and the subject matter almost incendiary for its time.  

Decades later, the play still packs a punch, as the Baltimore troupe ArtsCentric affirmed over the weekend with a production at the Garland Theater on the elegant campus of Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills. Too bad there couldn’t be a longer run. The staging of “For Colored Girls …” provided a strong vehicle for the company.

There is something depressingly relevant about the play. The issue of women being raped not by strangers, but by men invited to dinner, for example, has hardly disappeared over the decades. Same for the topics of abortion, drugs, racism, stereotyping, impersonalization of urban life, the struggle to learn and hold onto self-esteem, and the regularity of men who keep saying they’re sorry after repeating the same sort of reprehensible behavior.

Shange put a visceral edge on all of these things, cutting to the quick. The ArtsCentric production dug deep, too.

The staging was minimalist, with little more than lighting (by Sam Andrews) as a visual prop, most strikingly applied for the cast’s entrance, and simple costumes (Sierra Evans). But that was plenty, complemented by some well-chosen recorded music and sound effects.

The cast, directed with a keen sense of momentum by Kevin S. McAllister, got deep into the rhythm of Shange’s poetry, not to mention the dynamic choreography devised by Shalyce Hemby. They also handled the occasional a cappella singing with panache (Cedric D. Lyles was the musical director).

McAllister also allowed his players room to embellish a little; references to HIV and this country’s recent wars, for example, were slipped into the text.  I am not sure how the playwright would react to the updating, but I found the additions effective. Less effective was the use of amplification, which got overbearing at times on Saturday afternoon.

In the end, the overall vitality and commitment of the performance carried the day. The seven actresses did not all achieve the same level of assurance, but still meshed smoothly to create a dynamic ensemble.

Andrea Albert stood out as Lady in Red, especially for her mesmerizing performance in the penultimate scene, a narration of unspeakable domestic violence.

Candice Addison also commanded extra attention. Her performance as Lady in Yellow was, by turns, edgy and sweet, sensual and funny; she shone in the scene recounting a childhood obsession with Haitian hero Toussaint Louverture.  Note, too, the finely nuanced work of Sequina DuBose (Lady in Blue).

Filling out the ensemble were Jessa Marie Coleman (Lady in Yellow), Patricia Targete (Lady in Green), Melissa Victor (Lady in Purple) and Jasmine Wynn (Lady in Orange). One way or another, each left an admirable mark.

ArtsCentric typically mixes art and social awareness in its ventures. Fittingly, a portion of proceeds in this production benefited the House of Ruth Maryland, which serves abused women and their children.

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