MUMBI Kaigwa Triumphs with For Colored Girls at Phoenix Theatre

STUNNING SHOWCASE OF WOMEN CAST By Margaretta wa Gacheru. Published in Saturday Nation, July 27, 2013//// Performing to a house that was full to overflowing last Wednesday night, the Arts Canvas’ revival of the Ntozake Shange classic, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow was enuf, at Phoenix Theatre was a stunning reminder that the Black Power movement of the 1960s was not just a ‘passing cloud’ that resonated briefly among African Americans. The ensemble of seven Kenyan women who star in the award-winning ‘choreopoem’ under Mumbi Kaigwa’s insightful direction effectively embody the full range of emotions that originally propelled the poetic play all the way to Broadway in the USA. Ntozake Shange was only the second African American female playwright to reach that pinnacle of performance (after Lorraine Hansberry for A Raisin in the Sun). And undoubtedly part of the reason this intensely frank, funny and fiercely personal and painful account of women’s lives was such a success back then was because it speaks intimately to both women and men, transcending yet embracing the issue of race. The core of for colored girls is actually about gender, not just race. Shange was way ahead of her time in this regard as she wrote about relations between both female and male genders. Then as now, her play may make some people uncomfortable, as when her characters speak frankly and freely about such issues as rape and abortion, violence against women and children, and even prostitution. But these issues are very much alive in the Kenyan psyche today, so while some of the language may seem more strident than what we’re used to hearing from Kenyan women, it’s the energy, strength and spirit of women’s self awareness that makes the Arts Canvas production come alive so powerfully and poignantly. From the moment the seven women hit the stage, taking turns to tell women’s — and men’s intensely personal stories, their spirit never lags. Alternating between the ensemble and the solos, the stories have both stunning shock value (as when the Lady in Yellow, Mkamzee Chao Mwatela, tells the tale of how she enjoyed the night she lost her virginity) and soulful sensitivity (as when the Lady in Brown, Muthoni Hunja, plays the precocious little girl who runs away from home with her imaginary friend Touissant L’Ouverture. The fact that Touissant was the revolutionary freedom fighter who liberated Haiti from the French back in the late 18th century exposes how implicitly political this ‘choeopoem’ (which is set to the music of guitar, flute and drums by Ricky Matthews Githinji, Sam Guchu Ngugi and Ngare Mukiria) really is. In fact, long before feminists like Kate Millet and Gloria Steinem adopted the slogan,’The personal is the political’, Shange had written for colored girls, dramatically, poetically and even choreographically illustrating that very point. One exceptional feature of this version of for colored girls – which was first staged at Phoenix back in 1987 including Mumbi Kaigwa and directed by her mentor, the Gambia-born thespian Janet Young – is the inclusion of Mumbi’s daughter, Mo Pearson, who is making her stage debut in this stunning show. Mo’s got a theatrical pedigree (as her dad, Keith Pearson, is also a long-time thespian); but it was this production that has given her the opportunity to prove that she, like her mum, is a theatrical force whose charisma is just as strong as her fellow cast members, Chao, Muthoni, Hana Kefela, Kawira Thambu and Eudiah Kamonjo (who stood in for Njeri Ngugi as the Lady in Purple. However, the climactic moment of the show belonged to Mumbi who gave the most heart-wrenching performance, telling the tragic tale of Crystal and Bo Willie Brown. The funniest had to be Kawira Thambu doing ‘I almost lost my stuff’ and the line that remains to ponder is one of the last, when the women chime, “I found God in myself and I loved Her.” Over all, for colored girls is a celebration of women coming into their own selfhood. It runs through August 3rd.


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