Can Tyler Perry’s ‘For Colored Girls’ Resurrect BAM?

When it was announced that Tyler Perry would direct the screen version of Ntozake Shange’s seminal black womanist work For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, there was a collective moan of pain from black women all over America. Though I feel their pain, some of the sentiment’s expressed over the blogosphere were sadly lacking in any form of analysis that connected the dots between the Black Arts Movement which gave life to Shange’s work, and the so-called Chitlin Circuit which spawned Tyler Perry. Instead, many of these critics chose to be mean-spirited and question Perry’s worthiness of the task. For instance, on TheRoot.com, Thembi Ford had the following to say:

Not only will he produce and direct the upcoming film version, the King of Coonery will also write the adaptation of what may be the most important work about black female identity ever. Ask any black woman, especially the artsy/moodyself-aware type, about For Colored Girls… and she will respond with a wistful look and fond memories. I was Lady in Blue in a high-school production and have told more than one sorry dude, “insteada being sorry all the time, try being yourself,” quoting the Lady in Red (but playing it off like I came up with it on my own). This is classic material, and now we can expect the intentionally stripped-down aesthetic of Shange’s work to be replaced by style choices that only a closeted gay man could make.

Meanwhile, Monica Jackson chimed in with some choice words:

I’m also scared the Tyler Perry is going to fuck up our movie. To this date he has shown no shaded literary nuances in his stereotypical portrayals of traditional and formulaic black women.

But are white folks (the ones who make the decisions and control the purse strings) just trying to give us what we want? We spend tons of money on Tyler Perry. He is undoubtedly what some black folks want. What the people who decide what’s labeled as the black brand of entertainment don’t seem to understand is that some, even most, black folk aren’t all black folk. They only get dollar signs. Don’t get me wrong. I think Tyler Perry has done wonderful things in creating his brand and hiring black actors, but I wish he’d stick to that brand and not mess with stuff that really matters to a certain sort of black woman.

There are many more perspectives similar to those of Jackson and Ford throughout the blogosphere, unfortunately, the problem with these perspectives is that they lack the nuances that they accuse Perry of lacking. Instead of Perry directing the film version, I’ve heard this group of critics throw out names like Spike Lee, Kasi Lemmons, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and Nzinga Stewart(who actually is writing the screenplay). The thought being that these directors have the creative chops to do a classic piece like For Colored Girls justice — while Perry doesn’t.

That’s a fair point. Most of Perry’s work to date has been entertaining but far from memorable. However as my friend, author Scott Poulson-Bryant pointed out to me, some of Hollywood’s finest auteurs worked on some of America’s most dubious television shows. For instance, Bob Rafaelson created The Monkees, James L. Brooks used to write for My Mother the Car, Robert Towne used to write for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Robert Altman used to write for Bonanza.

“Do you think Tyler Perry has a Nashville or a Five Easy Pieces or a Terms of Endearment or a Chintaown lurking somewhere inside him? And if so, when do you think we might see it?” Poulson-Bryant mused.

Poulson-Bryant’s humor not withstanding, it’s certainly true that For Colored Girls is a classic and perhaps above Perry’s current output, but it’s equally true that it’s a highly unconventional work that would be challenging for virtually any director to adapt to the big screen. We know coming in that the film version won’t exactly be the stage version, no matter who the director may be.

The black women critics also complain that Perry’s involvement is strictly a money play. Let’s not get it twisted, Hollywood deals in mass audiences. Concessions are made in the hopes that revenues are maximized.

For those that think this is a bad thing, then the day Shange optioned her play to a film producer was the day the work was compromised and that was the day that they should have complained — not now. I’m sure Lemmons, Lee, and Prince-Bythewood could make versions of For Colored Girls worth seeing, but I doubt they would have the marketing muscle of Perry.

Perry’s involvement may give some folks trepidation about the quality of the movie, but it almost guarantees that tens of thousands more copies of Shange’s original script published by Scribner will be sold. Bottom line, more people will be exposed to the original work than Shange could have dreamed, when she wrote it.

Granted there have been complaints about Perry’s work, such as University of Southern California’s race and popular culture professor Todd Boyd’s statement that, “Minstrel shows are probably more progressive than Tyler Perry’s representation”, or thedailyvoice.com’s Clay Cane’s assertion that, “I am not for representation at any costs, especially when Perry relies on the most common denominator of stereotypes”. (“Movie Review: Meet The Browns”, 21 March 2008)

The sad truth is that for all of Perrry’s “stereotypes” his movies are extremely popular with black audiences, yet when so-called “serious” black movies are made, black people don’t exactly show up in droves. I offer Lemmons’ Talk to Me and Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna as exhibits A & B.

Still, I’m hopeful that there is a viable market for the film adaptations of black masterpieces and I find the idea of the most commercially successful playwright of the so-called Chitlin Circuit adapting the most commercially successful playwright of the Black Arts Movement a profound one. These are the two most well known black theatrical “movements” in black cultural history. Their potential pairing deserves serious examination.

Why Not BAM with Some Pigs Feet Thrown in the Mix?

Image found on Soul Bounce

This adaptation could be the rebirth of the Black Arts Movement with some pigs feet thrown in for good measure and good profit.

The Black Arts Movement (BAM) began in the mid-’60s and was considered the “aesthetic and spiritual sister” of the Black Power concept. BAM gave the example that you didn’t have to assimilate. You could do your own thing, get into your own background, your own history, your own tradition and your own culture.

BAM’s message of community engagement and empowerment through culture resonated in cities throughout America and was implemented on the ground through the development of black theater groups and black poetry performances and journals, which had close ties to community organizations and issues. Black theaters served as the focus of poetry, dance, and music performances in addition to formal and ritual drama. Black theaters were also venues for community meetings, lectures, study groups, and film screenings.

By the summer of 1968 BAM had gained so much momentum that the Drama Review, dedicated a special issue on black theater edited by Ed Bullins. In that issue, black arts theaters proudly emphasized their orientations in distinct, and often antagonistic, contradiction to traditional theaters, which were either commercial or strictly artistic in focus. Their concerns were not much different from those who now criticize Perry’s involvement with For Colored Girls

By 1970, black arts theaters and cultural centers were active throughout America. The New Lafayette Theatre (Bob Macbeth, executive director, and Ed Bullins, writer in residence) and Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre led the way in New York, Amiri Baraka’s Spirit House Movers held forth in Newark and traveled up and down the East Coast. The Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC) and Val Grey Ward’s Kuumba Theatre Company were leading forces in Chicago, from where emerged a host of writers, artists, and musicians including the OBAC visual artist collective whose “Wall of Respect” inspired the national community-based public murals movement and led to the formation of Afri-Cobra (the African Commune of Bad, Revolutionary Artists).

There was also David Rambeau’s Concept East and Ron Milner and Woodie King’s Black Arts Midwest, both based in Detroit. Ron Milner became the Black Arts movement’s most enduring playwright and Woodie King moved to New York and became its leading theater impresario by forming the New Federal Theatre.

In 1974, during this fecund period, Ntozake Shange began work on For Colored Girls in San Francisco with help from BAM practioners, Raymond Sawyer’s Afrikan-American Dance Company, and Halifu Osumare’s Spirit of the Dance, and a year later she moved her production to New York City and workshopped it at Woodie King’s New Federal Theatre. Once at the New Federal the play took off, and caught the attention of renowned Broadway producer Joseph Papp.

Papp had already had experience with BAM when a year earlier he produced Ron Milner’s What the Wine-Sellers Buy for New York’s Shakespeare Festival at Lincoln Center. Based on the packed houses at New Federal and the success he had with Milner’s play, Papp knew Shange’s work was ready for a larger stage. Once it finished its run at New Federal, he produced it first at his Public Theatre and then on Broadway at the Booth Theatre. The rest, as they say is history.

Ironically, as For Colored Girls’ star rose, BAM fell into rapid decline. The primary reasons for its decline are disputed. Some say it was the commercial success of Shange’s piece that enabled the mainstream to co-opt other non-politically oriented BAM works like Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play , while others say that it was BAM’s reliance on a non-profit philanthropic model for capital that was its ultimate undoing.

Both reasons have truth to them, but as somebody who sits on the board of a non-profit theater company in Trenton, New Jersey, I know how difficult it is to sustain any type of theater primarily on philanthropy. So I side with the economic perspective. Self-sustainability through a cooperative revenue generating model should have been a primary goal of BAM’s, unfortunately it wasn’t.

Whatever the reason, BAM as we know it was dead by the early ’80s. Its death wasn’t a death of the production of black plays, but instead it was the death of the ideal that through culture and entertainment, black communities could be engaged, empowered, reinvigorated and ultimately economically viable.

This death opened the door for the so-called Chitlin Circuit or what I’d prefer to call the Touring Urban Theater Circuit. Unlike BAM, Touring Urban Theater had no high minded ideals nor sense of collective movement. It was and is very much about generating a profit in order to sustain itself by providing earthy entertainment to black audiences that weren’t necessarily regular theater-goers. Though Touring Urban Theater may lack a sense of collective struggle it is very much an organic, guerilla movement.

The plays that laid the groundwork for Touring Urban Theater were Vy Higginson’s Mama I Want to Sing and Thomas Meloncon’s The Diary of Black Men. Both premiered in 1983 and in both cases the creators used their own money to produce their work and rent out their respective venues. There was no subsidy and no room for failure.

This do or die incentive forced Higginson and Meloncon to be just as creative in marketing as they were in content. To that end they made heavy use of black radio, church groups, beauty salons and barbershops to promote their shows . This was their template and both were successful beyond their initial expectations — Mama I Want to Sing ran consecutively at the Hecksher Theater for more than two years, while The Diary of Black Men is still on tour. It also must be said, that though neither Higginson or Meloncon singularly focused on community building through art in the way that BAM did, they did care very much about artistic self-expression and serious cultivation of black audiences.

Their successes inspired fledgling creative talents in black communities nationwide to follow their template. Before Perry, the most successful of these “disciples” was Shelly Garrett’s Beauty Shop. Garrett admittedly was driven first and foremost by a desire to make money and not an artists burning need for creative self-expression. So much so that, the usually open-minded Woodie King’s take on Garrett was as follows, “He’s not doing anything for any type of black community. It’s not like he’s going to make money and then find five derserving woman writers and put on their work. It’s always going to be about him.”

Since he cites Garrett as an influence, this opinion has been undeservedly transferred to Perry by many of his harshest critics, but Perry is no Shelley Garrett. True, Perry has made a truckload of money and does trade in a good deal of self-promotion, but it is also true that he’s used his money and influence to support black issues the Philadelphia swimming pool incident (see “Tyler Perry surprises kiddie day campers at Disney World” by Richard Elderidge, Atlanta Journal Constitution, 3 August 2009), as well as involve himself in his own brand of community empowerment by building his Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia — a predominantly black city.

Meanwhile, on the creative front there are some folks that see Perry as having legitimate creative chops and worthy of adapting For Colored Girls. One of those being none other than Woodie King. King had this to say about Perry’s work, “Tyler goes way beyond the clichés. When Madea is trying to convince a girl to change her life, there’s an honesty and brilliance. He taps into that wisdom of our grandmothers and mothers, and we sit there and say, ‘Yes.'”

Why not Tyler Perry?

Certainly none of this absolves Perry from criticism and definitely doesn’t ensure a first rate adaptation of For Colored Girls, but what I’d like to see from the black critical community is broader criticism in the context of the Black Arts Movement. What if Perry is able to make For Colored Girls a financial hit on the order of Madea Goes to Jail? The implications are significant. It will mean that he was able to achieve what BAM architect Ed Bullins characterized as populist postmodernism — a theater that would be self-supporting, but with elevated aesthetic and production values targeteting a mass market.

Taking Bullins’ thoughts a step further, if Perry’s version is successful, then in the same way that Perry can build a studio in Atlanta, why not work with the black business and artistic community to create self sustaining performing arts and cultural centers in black communities nationwide and give communities the opportunity to revitalize black life in America through culture. It could be the rebirth of the Black Arts Movement with some pigs feet thrown in for good measure and good profit. This is truly what is at stake, and this is why I’m so excited to see what happens with For Colored Girls in Perry’s hands.

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