It doesn’t matter how famous a play you’ve written, or how deeply embedded in the culture it’s become. If you’re a playwright, you’re always going to be nudging someone about putting that show onstage again.
So the last time they spoke, about a week before she died, the playwright and poet Ntozake Shange had a question for her director, Leah C. Gardiner.
“By the way,” she asked, “is there any movement on the production?”
She meant the Public Theater’s revival of her breakthrough work, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” which starts previews on Oct. 8. Shange, who died last October at 70, envisioned the production as a celebration. It’s also a homecoming of sorts, at the theater where this enduringly influential choreopoem opened to acclaim in 1976.
“She wanted a rainbow of women on that stage, and I gave her that,” Ms. Gardiner said one August afternoon at the Public, her voice thickening with emotion. “And it saddens me to the core that she won’t be able to see that.”
An ensemble piece, “For Colored Girls” is made up of thematically linked stories told in spoken poetry: bold, vivid, intimate tales of black female agency and adventure, danger and desire, sisterhood and sadness.
Each of its seven roles is a woman named for a color of the rainbow, though Shange (whose full name is pronounced en-toh-ZAH-kee SHAHN-gay) swapped out one standard hue, indigo, for a Lady in Brown.
But it’s her Lady in Yellow who delivers the crystallizing line. “Bein’ alive and bein’ a woman and bein’ colored is a metaphysical dilemma I haven’t conquered yet,” she says.
The show has been part of the canon since it became a Broadway hit in 1976. Still, “For Colored Girls” doesn’t get a lot of professional productions; it’s been much more a staple of college theater. Many people, too, encounter it only on the page, in a text alive with references to music and movement. (See the opening credits of the new HBO series “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” where it is affectionately spoofed, with a puppet woman at the hair salon reading a puppet version of the play.)
But at a moment when race and gender are so prominent in the tumultuous civic dialogue — and when black playwrights, particularly women, are pushing both the content and form of contemporary American drama in new directions — the time seems right to revisit Shange’s text.
“It’s an absolute weapon, this play,” said Ms. Gardiner, an Obie Award winner who last spring directed Tori Sampson’s “If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a _________” at Playwrights Horizons. “It’s a political weapon. But so are all plays.”
Ms. Gardiner said she didn’t write poetry anymore herself, but she studied it at the University of Pennsylvania before getting an M.F.A. in directing from the Yale School of Drama in the 1990s. She also spent about nine months after college as a personal assistant to Shange.
As Ms. Gardiner shapes “For Colored Girls” to her own vision, she’s keeping in mind the curiosity that she said Shange felt about “how the #MeToo movement has created space for reclamation of the ‘black girl’s song.’”
That’s a phrase that the Lady in Brown speaks, but when Ms. Gardiner used it, she was talking of black women’s “self-ownership: owning our bodies, owning our hair, owning our skin.”
Back in 1976, the play’s cast at the Public and on Broadway included Shange as the Lady in Orange. Opening at the Booth Theater in the same season as the original productions of Neil Simon’s “California Suite,” Stephen Schwartz’s “Godspell” and David Mamet’s “American Buffalo,” Oz Scott’s production of “For Colored Girls” outlasted them all, running until July 1978.
“‘For Colored Girls’ was meant for women of color,” Shange wrote in 2010, the year that Tyler Perry released his film adaptation. “‘For Colored Girls’ still is a women’s trip, and the connection we can make through it, with each other and for each other, is to empower us all.”
Fittingly, the creative team for the new production will be made up entirely of women of color. Such a collaboration is a rare opportunity in the careers of Martha Redbone, who is composing the show’s original music, and the choreographer Camille A. Brown (“Choir Boy”).
“I’m a musician and a woman of color, a woman in the music business,” Ms. Redbone said over the phone, “and you know how difficult that is. I work with an awful lot of guys.”
Likewise for Ms. Brown: “There are many times when I’m the only woman in the room,” she said. “Sometimes I’m the only black woman, sometimes the only black person. It depends on the day.”
Both dated their earliest awareness of “For Colored Girls” to childhood. Ms. Redbone, who said her score would pay tribute to “all the music of the African diaspora,” had the poster for the play hanging in her bedroom in the 1980s — a gift from her mother, who loved the show. Ms. Brown remembers a copy of that same poster, huge, on her uncle’s wall. In its figure of a young black woman, she said, she saw someone who looked like her.
“I’m extremely terrified, because it is such a beloved show,” Ms. Brown said, adding that she planned to draw on contemporary movement and forms of dance — hip-hop, say, or the Harlem Shake — that weren’t part of its vocabulary decades ago.
The Public’s interest in reviving “For Colored Girls” goes back to a staged reading the theater held in 2005; Ms. Gardiner joined the project last year.
Jeanie O’Hare, the theater’s director of new work development, said pointedly that the play’s programming this fall was not “a homage, tribute or hagiographic decision.” Rather, when the theater put the piece to a crucial test — asking, “Is this a classic?” — the answer was yes.
Yet the show has evolved over the years. For a 20th-anniversary production that Shange directed in 1996 at the New Federal Theater — the downtown company that produced “For Colored Girls” before it moved to the Public — she added “Positive,” a poem about H.I.V./AIDS, and updated another poem. Her brother, Paul Williams, said that “Positive” wouldn’t be part of the Public production, but that it would include “two other poems that Ntozake wrote later in life.”
Now it’s Ms. Gardiner’s job to interpret “For Colored Girls” for this politically inflamed American moment. As she sees it, theater that speaks uncomfortable truths like those in Shange’s play can foster greater understanding, which equals necessary change.
“When you’re watching your country disintegrate, you’re watching your empire fall,” Ms. Gardiner said, “that is when some of the greatest art is made.”
And so to work.