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Decades later, 'for colored girls' is still a painful, thrilling, and touching piece

'For colored girls...'

'For colored girls...' Andy Weaverling

There were appreciative murmurs and nodding heads throughout Penumbra Theatre on Thursday night as the measured twangs that open "Formation" sounded at the conclusion of for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf.

Playing the Beyoncé song affirmed a connection that must have been going through the minds of many attendees: the defiant and empowering, yet open and vulnerable, themes of the justly acclaimed Lemonade echoed those playwright Ntozake Shange explored in her 1976 masterpiece.

For colored girls was only the second play written by an African-American woman to reach Broadway, yet today it's seen far less often than the first (Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun). That makes Penumbra's exquisite new production all the more essential. Never less than relevant, for colored girls is both painful and exhilarating to watch amidst the long-overdue upheaval of the #MeToo movement.

Shange calls her composition a "choreopoem," which makes it sound far more abstruse than it is. Although there's no conventional narrative to connect the play's 20 poems, for colored girls unfolds with more shape and suspense than many straightforward stage stories because of Shange's brilliant use of connective tissue. It feels like an urgent conversation among friends, alternately chiming in with contributions that are discrete but precisely relevant.

Seven women of color, all onstage together for almost the play's entire duration, are identified by the colors they wear rather than by name. They alternate characters: sometimes speaking, sometimes acting silently, sometimes moving subtly but supportively. Ananya Chatterjea's choreography is original and complex, but so organic to the storytelling that it seems to emerge directly from Shange's language.

These stories include gripping accounts of being wronged, but, poignantly, the play begins and ends with expressions of what feels right — from exuberant youthful lust to mature expressions of love and support. These characters have been hurt by men, but not defined by them.

Co-directors Sarah Bellamy and Lou Bellamy have assembled a consistently strong cast, all the more impressive given the need for performers to be fluent in both speech and movement. Each artist has memorable moments. Audrey Park portrays an abusive ex in a heart-stopping standoff; Ashe Jaafaru tells the harrowing but also humorous story of a runaway bookworm; Sun Mee Chomet delivers a rich monologue that uses "my stuff" as an extended metaphor.

The production's creative, collaborative spirit extends to its technical aspects. Set designer Vicki Smith staggers translucent panels upstage, where performers can move to create a sense of distance while remaining present to the audience. Subtle sound (Drea Reynolds) and lighting (Kathy Maxwell) design create a series of worlds for these women to move through, without distracting from the gripping performances.

Three young girls (Eycis Maxon, Jianna Reynolds, and Quintella Rule) appear as the play begins and ends, presented as the show's dedicatees. At first dancing playfully in school clothes and later emerging draped in colors of their own, the girls represent the living thread of sisterhood: recipients of love and wisdom that can help them transcend their struggles, delivered by women who fully understand just how significant those struggles might prove to be.