Black Feminist Theater: Displaying Complex Black Womanhood
During the mid to late twentieth century during the Black Feminist Movement, playwrights, producers, directors and actors began developing theatrical productions that staged the unique experiences of black women, creating what is known today as Black Feminist Theater. Lisa Anderson describes Black Feminist Theater as consisting of “…playwrights, directors, performance artists and scholars who, intentionally or not, blend the core values and aesthetics of black feminism with their art and scholarship.” Using the works of various notable black feminist theorists such as Barbara Christian, Audre Lorde and bell hooks, Anderson carefully depicts the aesthetic of Black Feminist Theater. Aesthetic, however, not pertaining to the objective beauty of theater rather the set of principles that underlie the work of the artist or scholar. Anderson’s definition of Black Feminist Theater can be built upon with the inclusion of Lynette Goddard’s idea of a “progressive” black feminist performance. A black feminist performance that is progressive gradually develops and proceeds step by step with the conscious intention to represent humanhood. This practice of representation builds off of existing displays of black womanhood, similar to black feminist scholarship where the lived experiences of black women are very crucial to work that is being produced. Where Black feminist theory attempts to properly articulate the black women’s standpoint through scholarship, Black Feminist Theater works to express and vocalize it on stage.
In 1976, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Was Enuf premiered on Broadway. Shange’s choreopoem is believed to be the first black feminist production. As the beginning of the title suggests, the play depicts why colored girls may consider suicide. Living at the intersection of blackness and womanhood subjects each of them to emotional or physical pain and leaves a significant impact on the way each woman views herself and shapes the word around her. Suicidal thoughts or behaviors arise due to the vulnerability these women feel because they cannot protect themselves from pain being inflicted onto them. Following the forward slash, “when the rainbow is enuf” suggests that there is also joy and healing in the lives of these women. The stories of each of the women range from taking control of one’s sexuality to dealing with sexual harassment and assault to even mourning the death of one’s children. Finding solace and comfort in one another and in life, each character of the play is able to find empowerment in community and sisterhood. Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls is the first play that embodies a black feminist aesthetic to display the emotional and psychological impact racism and sexism has on women of color.
As a theatrical production, For Colored Girls, is an example of a productive black feminist performance. Dealing with national issues such as suicide, For Colored Girls depicts how the black woman’s standpoint makes her subjectable racism and sexism as well as other violences that come along with being human. In “Bitch You Must be Crazy: Representations of Mental Illness in Ntozake Shange’s for Colored Girls Who Consider Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf (1976)”, Diana Martha Louis, addresses issues surrounding the mental health of Black women. She states that although suicide completion rates for black males is nearly two times greater than that of black women, black women have higher attempt rates. There is, however, very little research that has been done surrounding black women and suicide despite this fact. Louis states that Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls can be useful for addressing the national issue as well as raising awareness about black women in relations to suicide. Louis’ analysis of For Colored Girls reminds the reader that mental illness manifests in various different forms and is not unique to any group despite lack of research. Placing black women at the center of concern and focus, Ntozake’s choreopoem shows how human experiences, such as the incidence of mental illness or suicidal behavior, are conflated by sexism and racism. For Colored Girls also brings to attention how nuanced sorrow, happiness and resilience can be amongst black women.
Black Feminist Theater is crucial to the black women’s reclamation of identity because it creates space for damaging perceptions of black womanhood to be challenged and dismantled. Through self representation, productive black feminist theater debunks racialized and sexist myths surrounding black feminist and ultimately reshapes how others perceive black womanhood. The myth of the strong black woman, for instance, is a stereotype that has been associated with the resilience of black woman. Although it may seem like being labeled as strong is positive, labeling an entire group of people who have been marginalized by race, class, gender and sexuality as “strong” suggest that they are capable of handling the oppressions in which that have been forced to face. Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls disproves this myth by showing the psychological, social and emotional damages women of color have encountered at the face of oppression.