Directed by Anthony Mark Stockard, performed by Norfolk State University, Dillard Auditorium – WSSU Albert H. Anderson Jr. Conference Center

Tickets and showtimes can be found here.

Before Shonda Rhimes and Ava DuVernay, there was Ntozake Shange.

The black playwright and poet who came to prominence in the mid to late 1970s wrote countless works that addressed issues relating to gender and race. A self-proclaimed black feminist, Shange often wrote about the struggles that black women and girls faced.

Her first and most influential work, created when she was just 27, is titled For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, and will be performed at this year’s festival by students from Norfolk State University. The choreopoem, in which a series of poetic monologues accompanies dance movements and music, tells the story of seven women — each dressed in a different color of the rainbow — who have suffered oppression in a racist and sexist society. Despite being a few decades old, the subject matter of For Colored Girls is just as relevant today as it was in 1976 when the work first premiered. The work covers topics like love, empowerment, sisterhood, sexual assault and abortion.

“The idea of black women being so candid, so open was unheard of,” says Anthony Stockard, the director of the drama and theater program at Norfolk State University. “It was revolutionary, bold. They hadn’t been given a platform like that before.”

Stockard, who first saw the play when he was in college and has been directing the work at Norfolk since 2015, says that many of student actors have strong reactions when confronting the piece. He notes how one male student got so emotional after one rehearsal that he ended up calling his mom to tell her that he loved her. For the female students, he says it is even more personal.

“They have a deep reaction because they are speaking truth through their characters but also through their own lived experiences,” he says.

Stockard says he often lets the female students lead group discussions and allows them to work with his assistant director, a woman, alone for some sessions to give them space.

“There’s just a daily reaffirmation of value and admiration for them and what they deal with and the burdens they carry that are uniquely appropriated to them. It’s consistently enlightening and it’s a continuous discovery of what it means to be human. [The play] has universality in that way.”

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