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Hers was a tragic and sensuous hybrid of poetry, dance, drama and feminist theology — it even has been called the most important work about black female identity ever. Perry might be very much in touch with his feminine side when he dons a dress and padding to play his larger-than-life character Madea, but his style is too crude and stagy for Shange’s transformative evocation of black female life, and his moralizing strikes exactly the wrong notes to express the pain and longing that cries out from her heated poetry.
“Girls” certainly will turn off those who know Shange’s play, but what will Perry’s usual audience make of his foray into date rape, domestic violence, homosexuality, back-room abortion and promiscuity? One should never gainsay Perry’s ability to attract large opening-weekend crowds, but word-of- mouth could be toxic.
“For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” — to give the full title of the theater piece — never was going to make an easy transition to the screen. The “choreopoem,” as Shange dubbed it, has no conventional plot or characters. Performers give life to the poetry as characters are described merely as “lady in red” or “lady in white.” In so doing, they speak to the issues of sexuality, violence, spirituality and the discovery of one’s identity.
No, it never was going to be easy, but someone needed to put creative sweat into this one, to reach for cinematic solutions to the theatrical challenge. All Perry does is force conventional plots and characters — utter cliches without lives or souls — into the fabric of Shange’s literary work. The hackneyed melodramas get him from one poem to the next but run roughshod over the collective sense of who these women are.
Then, when Perry arrives at the next poetic passage, the switch in writing between him and Shange is jarringly pronounced. The words belong to different worlds.
Perry situates his nine female protagonists in Harlem, supposedly in the modern day, but then how does a backroom abortion figure into this contemporary scene? Most of his women live in a crummy walk-up tenement, though not Janet Jackson’s Jo, a high-powered magazine executive with a corner office and an East Side penthouse. Perry gives his frequent star no favors here, with hairdo, makeup and clothes that make her look like a mannequin.
However, Jo’s beleaguered assistant, Crystal (Kimberly Elise) — Perry’s commercial instincts insist that he lifts from “The Devil Wears Prada” — does live in that walk-up, where an abusive, alcoholic husband (Michael Ealy) is a constant threat to her and their two children. Building manager Gilda (Phylicia Rashad) has her eye on the situation as well as the one across the hall where Tangie (Thandie Newton) entertains a different man every night.
Tangie’s Bible-toting mother, Alice (Whoopi Goldberg), and a younger sister, Nyla (Tessa Thompson), occupy an apartment downstairs, which keeps a kind of demilitarized zone between members of the warring family. Meanwhile, Juanita (Loretta Devine) down the hall fails to listen to her own advice as a nurse who runs a women’s clinic at a community center when she continually lets a two-timing guy back into her life.
Others who get connected to the building include Kelly (Kerry Washington), a social worker who responds to Gilda’s call about child abuse and inexplicably does nothing about it, and Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose), who teaches dance to Nyla.
The male characters other than Hill Harper’s police detective are all sick cartoons, existing only to perpetuate horrors on the women. In Perry’s peculiar view, though, the women often collaborate in their victimhood. They invite the stranger into the home or let men stay when they clearly should go. They all fall from grace.
When reciting Shange’s words, the actresses often achieve moments of splendor. Some even achieve dignity within the hoary melodrama. This is especially true of Rashad, who acts as a kind of Greek chorus; Elise, whose character must cope with unspeakable tragedy; and Rose, who must search for an outlet for her rage and humiliation.
All technical aspects of the production are solid, though the sets never fail to look like sets.
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