BWW Interview: Sharia Benn of FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE / WHEN THE RAINBOW IS ENUF at Open Stage Of Harrisburg
When Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf premiered in 1976, it was only the second play written by a black woman to appear on Broadway. It explores the individual stories of seven different women through the use of poetry and movement. As the stories weave together, they illuminate experiences of struggle and oppression, love and sisterhood. Since its inception in 1974, it has been published in book form, adapted for television, and produced as a film. This extraordinary piece of performance art is making its way to Open Stage of Harrisburg, produced in partnership with Sankofa African American Theatre Company, and opening January 19th. Broadway World had an opportunity to learn more about the production from its director, Sharia Benn.
BWW: Tell us a little about yourself
Benn: I'm originally from Baltimore, and I moved to Harrisburg a little over 20 years ago. During the day I am a director at a regional insurance company. After work hours I am fortunate enough to participate in local theatre community as an actor, director, and co-founder of a theatre company-Sankofa African American Theatre Company. I've worked with Open Stage for over 10 years, co-directed last season's Akeelah and the Bee, and I am honored to direct this production in partnership with Sankofa African American Theatre Company.
BWW: I love seeing theatre groups working together and helping to build one another up. Talk to us about Sankofa and the relationship with Open Stage
Benn: In late 2015, an ensemble of professional African American actors and the founders of Open Stage of Harrisburg began to seriously dialogue about the need for an African American focused and led theatrical arena. This dialogue grew into a formalized founding committee who labored for a year through a focused strategic planning and program development process that gave birth to the Sankofa African American Theatre of Harrisburg. Sankofa was incorporated in June 2017 and received its nonprofit status in November 2017. Open Stage of Harrisburg has adopted Sankofa as a project to support the organization through its first few years of organizing and development.
BWW: What led to the decision to perform Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf?
Benn: It's an iconic, ground breaking, soul-shaking piece that had not been in the Harrisburg area, that I'm aware of, in many, many years. I was surprised that so many people had never heard of the work or Ntozake Shange, especially since this was the second show written by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. The first was Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. So, when the opportunity was presented to me, I knew it was time. Although the piece was chosen prior to Ntozake Shange's death in October, I feel more compelled to do this production now in order to honor her work that gave a public voice to the private struggles of women, particularly as experienced by women of color.
BWW: I understand this show is a series of poems accompanied by dance movements and music-a choreopoem. For audience members who have never experienced this type of performance, what should they expect?
Benn: The play is a series of poetic monologues woven together with movement of the women as they transfer from one poem to the next. The audience will experience a series of poems in which each poem represents the entirety of an experience. This is not a linear, chronological piece. The seven women are story tellers, and each time they speak they tell a different story in a different time in a different place, but all of the stories tie together around the theme of surviving traumatic experiences and finding love and healing within the self and the sisterhood.
BWW: If you had to choose one, which poem is your favorite and why?
Benn: My favorite would have to be "Toussaint" because it's engaging and funny and packed with so many historical, cultural, and social references. It is a change in beat because it is delivered through the eyes of a young girl experiencing the beauty of love for the first time. This love is pure and uplifting and interjects in the piece the reminder that not all of our experiences are heartbreaking or traumatic.
BWW: The show was first written and produced in the 70s and explores many themes around oppression, racism, and sexism through the stories of seven women. In what ways are these themes still relevant today-are they even more relevant today?
Benn: Because the same issues of racism, sexism, and violation are just as prevalent today as they were in the 70's when this work was first performed, is one of the driving reasons I wanted to have this performed now. The issues did not go away, the victims were forced into shame and silence. Now there is this building up of infrastructure or movement that empowers victims to speak out and provides encouragement for them to heal physically, mentally, and emotionally.
BWW: Talk to us a little about the theme of sisterhood in the show and why it's such an important theme for audiences?
Benn: Knowing that you are not alone breathes life into an individual. That's the purpose of community-the manifestation of this principle. The sisterhood is the community in this piece that wraps itself around each of the women to keep them from going over the edge and to help each woman find or restore her purpose, her value, her inner divine beauty.
BWW: The women are identified by colors. What is the significance of color and the rainbow in the show?
Benn: In this show, "color" signifies individual experiences that are commonly shared by others. The rainbow is the collective sharing of all the women who have been colored by the joys and pains in life. Using colors instead of names also communicates that the stories don't belong to a particular character. It allows for the women to float in and out of the stories and time so that we see each monologue separately and distinctly as an individual thread in the tapestry of a woman's life.
BWW: What do you hope the audience will take away from this experience?
Benn: That we all have a responsibility to tell our stories truthfully and give ourselves permission to heal and be beautiful and that while doing so we become encouragement, strength, wisdom and guidance for those who come after us.
BWW: Why should our readers come see this production?
Benn: It's a classic piece of American literature and theatre. It's a powerful piece that can drive dialogue between races, gender, and age. This production will open hearts, minds, and understanding-if you let it.
BWW: I read that the author updated the play by adding a new poem in 2010. Are there any other themes you think the author would have included if she'd written it today given the current political and social climate?
Benn: Shange nailed it! I don't find that anything could be or should be added to make this more relevant in the current political and social climate.
Do not wait to get your tickets for Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. The opening weekend is already sold out! Visit www.openstagehbg.com to get tickets while you still can.