‘For Colored Girls’ opens strong to positive reviews, film’s Tessa Thompson talks about her role

Actress Tessa Thompson who plays Nyla in "For Colored Girls"

By Sandra Varner, special for shades Magazine

Innocence lost, maturity found and the bonds of sisterhood prevail in the heart wrenching drama, “For Colored Girls,” the film adaptation of author Ntozake Shange’s multiple award-winning stage play, now in theaters.

“Colored Girls” – directed by Tyler Perry under his 34th Street Films banner in partnership with Lionsgate Pictures – took in nearly $20 million in opening weekend revenues generated from 2,900 screens at 2,127 locations, adding to Perry’s half billion-dollar gross box office receipts for his combined 10 films over the past five years.

Although many are hearing the film’s title for the first time, it actually has been part of the literary world for close to four decades.

In 1974, Shange’s choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf” made its stage debut, combining poetry, dance and music, and most significantly, placing the black female experience center stage. In lyrical, honest, angry, funny and tender language, Shange’s “colored girls” evoked the feelings woven into the fabric of black female life in America. Within two years, the play became a Broadway sensation, won an Obie and Tony Award and would eventually be produced in regional theaters throughout the country.

Now, 36 years later, Perry has integrated the vivid language of Shange’s choreopoem into a contemporary narrative that explores what it means to be a woman of color, any color.

“Colored Girls” binds together the stories of nine different women: Jo (Janet Jackson), Tangie (Thandie Newton), Crystal (Kimberly Elise), Gilda (Phylicia Rashad), Kelly (Kerry Washington), Juanita (Loretta Devine), Yasmine (Anika Noni Rose), Nyla (Tessa Thompson) and Alice (Whoopi Goldberg).

"For Colored Girls'" star-studded cast

Crises, heartbreaks and crimes will ultimately bring these nine women fully into the same path where they will find commonality and understanding. Each will speak her truth as never before and each will know that she is complete as a human being, glorious and divine in all her colors.

During a screening of the film, many in attendance shared their feelings about this moving story that sits at the crossroads of pain, passion and perseverance.

“I thought it was very well done, especially given the challenges of developing a script from what was nothing more than poetic sketches in the original choreopoem. I was impressed that the poetic monologues were worked into the film so skillfully and that the poetry held up a generation after they were written,” said Margot Dashiell, a professor of African American Studies at Laney College in Oakland, California. “There were male characters who were disgusting in their violence or dishonesty, but there was also the loving husband, a police man. So again, there was balance [that] I don’t remember in the play.

“I’m glad I saw the film.”

“Thirty-five years in the making and not a moment too soon,” said Rhonda White-Warner, an associate pastor who lives in Vallejo, California. “Ntosake’s spirit is magnificently and mystically captured and embodied by Tyler Perry along with a stellar cast of ‘ladies’ and support players. With chocolate tears running down my face … the overwhelming presence of ‘colored girls’ everywhere and the beauty of our experiences (however painful) must continue to compel us to ‘move to the ends of our own rainbows’.”

One of the film’s stars, Thompson, is known for her roles in “When a Stranger Calls” and TV’s “Heroes.” The actress recently spoke with Sandra Varner about preparing for her role in “Colored Girls” and the message it may send.

Q: This is a big story to tell and you have a very pivotal role in this absorbing story. To ready yourself for the largess of this film, what was your preparation?

A: Gosh, well there wasn’t a tremendous amount of time to do so. When I was cast, I started to feel like everything I had done prepared me for the next step. There were so many things about this particular character and this project that were kind of kismet. I was familiar with the piece, I had work shopped it a tiny bit when there was to be a revival of the play on Broadway, so I was familiar with those monologues. That preparation was done and I think it was sort of taking a deep breath and leaping.

Q: What a great phrase – taking a deep breath and leaping – I think that’s what this journey has been especially from Shange’s book to the stage production to the feature films … it has been a big leap. Did this role make you feel more courageous – as an actor – coming out on the other side of it?

A: Yeah, absolutely and I think the experience of working with such talented, brave and experienced women. I just feel a lot stronger in general just as a person. And, to watch someone like Tyler have this piece be something that he’s wanted to do for years coupled with what he has expressed in recent press interviews, this film was sort of a peak experience for him. Watching a lot of people do things that required a tremendous amount of bravery – even for the men to have to do some of the things that they do in the movie and explore the things that they had to explore. Yeah, it was a huge, strengthening experience.

Q: Nyla, your character, has a daunting encounter with Rose (Gray), a back alley abortionist. That portion of the film is very dark. When we think about abortion procedures from the trajectory of women in America, there is a larger discussion to be had and social commentary abounds. Have you had the occasion to address your peer group and younger girls about your placement in life, in society?

A: I think that’s a really interesting thought. I haven’t, no. I haven’t spoken out in any way about my own kind of politics, but I think what’s interesting in the movie and I’ve heard some people critically say of it, ‘OK we set it in modern day, but the nature of the abortion does not feel modern. How do you reconcile that?’ For me, artistically, what was interesting about that process is (that) so many women do get abortions that can’t speak out about it and talk with their family about it. It’s like enduring what it feels like to have a back alley abortion when you don’t have a support system, where you can’t do it in an environment that feels safe.

I’ve personally talked to women that are close to me that have had abortions in situations like a clinic where it was not something that felt particularly safe or a pleasant environment. It’s not a pleasant environment regardless. So ,I think that’s kind of what we’re trying to speak to in the film; no, I haven’t spoken out, but, I think it’s probably important that I do.

Read more celebrity profiles and interviews at www.Talk2SV.com.

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