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Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls? What?

Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls? What?

In 1975 when I first saw Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” there had never been anything like it before on stage.  It changed both my personal life as a lesbian and my professional life as a writer.  I heard, for the first time, reflected back to me the things I knew to be true: colored women are so undervalued in US culture that daily life can be toxic.

It also answered a question that had been haunting me for a decade: what could I write about?  I had a degree from journalism school, had worked in black theatre and public television and in not one of those venues had I ever seen an indication that the lives of a colored woman, much less a colored lesbian were of any value either intrinsically or as subject matter in art.

So I went back and saw the performance…which did get its start in the Bay Area…over and over again.  When it moved to Broadway it was like the earth had split open signaling maybe our voices might actually be heard outside our own kitchens.  I went again and again; once even sitting behind Diana Ross—fortunately she had on the small hair.

The poems Shange created were cool, refreshing water, nourishing my soul.  This was true for thousands of us.  Every performance was the same: women in the audience gasped with recognition, testified in sisterhood, cried in empathy and shouted with joy.

Then came the backlash.  African American newspapers…there used to be more of them…decried Shange’s ‘betrayal’ of Black men.  Black male critics called her a traitor and worse a ‘lesbian!’  A black male writer in New York even wrote a forgettable performance piece in response that ultimately sank under its own callowness.  In truth “For Colored Girls…”wasn’t about men at all—it hardly mentioned men. What you did experience in the theatre piece was the collateral damage from a patriarchal, misogynist, racist culture.  Ntozake Shange’s ability to place women at the center of our own lives seemed to infuriate men of color. They deliberately over looked the ultimate point: women can look inside ourselves for wholeness and rely on each other for sustenance that will help us grow. (A similar backlash followed the popularity of Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, “The Color Purple.”)

So, 35 years later, along comes Tyler Perry’s decision to direct a film version of Shange’s legendary work and I thought I’d have a heart attack. Perry seems like a nice enough young man even though he’s made his fortune dressing up in a fat suit and playing farcical fat, Black women in movies that exploit every possible male/female stereotype, revealing no new insights.  Not unusual for a male director—black or white.   The idea of Perry stripping and exploiting such a landmark work that was pivotal to the development of Black feminist and Black lesbian feminist philosophy created a visceral reaction in me close to rage.

That said: I hereby apologize to Tyler Perry for misjudging his ability to actually see Black women as something other than the ‘butt’ of jokes and to reveal a level of insight and sensitivity I’ve never seen from a Black male director. I could tell he was doing it right (despite some rough directorial patches) because of the audience.  On opening night there were more women of color in the theatre than I’d ever seen there together at one time.

It was as if it were 1975 again.  We gasped, testified, cried and shouted because much of the oppression, hurt and fear are still the same. Perry actually honored Ntozake Shange’s poetic work and the spirit of women of color she portrayed so brilliantly.  So stop reading this thing, close down your computer and go see yourself in a movie—yourself or women you love, or women you might know.  Go…the rainbow is still there.

Jewelle Gomez is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories.  Her new play about James Baldwin will be produced in September 2011. Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp.  Or her website: www.jewellegomez.com

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16 comments

  • liza says:

    Jewelle, I’m so glad to hear that Perry did right by this. Thanks for this insightful and interesting review. I never saw the play, but I will make sure I see the film.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by DYKE A Quarterly, DYKE A Quarterly. DYKE A Quarterly said: Jewelle Gomez writes about Tyler Perry version of For Colored Girls. @apocalips @vampyrevamp @http://www.epochalips.com/?p=183 […]

  • natasha dyer says:

    im glad to hear that tyler perry may have hit the mark? because i for one am very tired and repulsed by the way he makes his money: movie after movie of exploiting black negative stereotypes. i was always excited to see this movie only to learn recently that he was behind it as well. i heard the thud in my heart, my hopes falling. but im glad you say its good ms. jewelle gomez. though i was still going to check it out my hopes have been lifted again.
    :)natasha
    (ps you and I worked together at the last Dinah Shore, Lucy and Gail Culture Blast. im from Sappho’s Return)

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  • Good an very informative post. I will come back to your blog regullary. One thing: I do not exactly know what do you mean in the second paragraph. Could you please exmplain your opinion?

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  • I’m a bit behind but you asked about the second paragraph in my blog about Tyler Perry’s production. In the 1950s and 60s there was little in popular media to tell me that anyone was interested in stories about or ideas from a woman of color. Even Black theatre and films marginalized us, or kept us in narrow boxes much like they still do now. The play, “For Colored Girls…” was one of the very first pieces of art that put women of color at the center and it inspired a generation of women artists when it appeared. The point of it was how women of color survived and thrived and created supportive networks w/each other. Men are not the central focus at all (which made male critics furious at the time much as it did later w/Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple) I hope that helps clarify what I wanted to say. Thanks for reading my work.

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