It’s been more than four decades since Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf’’ first began speaking to audiences in an arrestingly original, even singular, voice.
Today, in an era of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, that voice still has plenty to say. An impassioned new production at Roxbury’s Hibernian Hall makes clear that Shange’s “choreopoem’’ has lost none of its vitality or its power to move us.
Directed by Dayenne C. Byron Walters and choreographed by W. Lola Remy, “For Colored Girls’’ features a luminously expressive, seven-member cast that includes Walters. The production is presented by Praxis Stage, a troupe founded in 2016 “as a response to the disaster of [President] Trump’s election,’’ according to its website, that aims to connect theater with activism.
“For Colored Girls’’ has a similar aim. Shange’s focus is on the struggles and triumphs of women of color as they forge an identity in a world that often seems intent on erasing that identity. There is beauty and pain, anger and hope, humor and urgency, and, above all, resonance in the blend of monologues, dance, and music that makes up “For Colored Girls.’’
Shange’s play is justly celebrated for the richness of its language, but Remy’s choreography — sensual, exuberant, and gravely solemn by turns — adds a crucial dimension, creating an overall tableau of solidarity among the characters that sends the wordless message: None of us is alone.
When “For Colored Girls’’ premiered on Broadway in 1976 with Shange herself in the cast, she became only the second black female dramatist to have her play performed there (the great Lorraine Hansberry was the first, with her 1959 masterpiece “A Raisin in the Sun’’). “For Colored Girls’’ won an Obie Award for an earlier run off-Broadway, was nominated for a Tony Award in the category of best play, ran for nearly two years on Broadway, and in the ensuing decades was often presented on college campuses. In 2010, Tyler Perry directed a film adaptation that was widely panned. Walters offers her own biting appraisal in a director’s note in the playbill, describing “that recent movie’’ as “a sad bastardization’’ of Shange’s play.
The stage production at Hibernian Hall employs Shange’s updated script, which includes a scene underscoring the impact of the AIDS epidemic on romantic relationships, along with references to the war in Iraq in a scene about a family tragedy brought about by a soldier with PTSD.
But the primary strength of “For Colored Girls’’ largely remains what it was in the 1970s: Shange’s uncanny ear and her empathy for the women who are determined to tell their stories — introspective stories of losing and finding themselves, stories that register variously as testimony, confession, dream, manifesto, and sometimes indictment.
The women, who are identified only by the hue of the dresses they wear (the costumes are by Cassandra Cacoq), are portrayed by Walters, Thomika Marie Bridwell, Kerline Desir, Verna Hampton, Tonasia Jones, Ciera-Sade Wade, and Karimah Williams. Each character steps forward, one by one, to tell stories about their personal relationships and experiences and, more broadly, about being buffeted but (mostly) not capsized during turbulent journeys toward selfhood.
In one high-spirited sequence, Walters’s Lady in Yellow reminisces about the high school graduation night dance after which she lost her virginity. Also recalling a youthful episode is Wade’s Lady in Blue, who recounts the time, at 16, she journeyed to the South Bronx and took part in a 36-hour dance marathon. She also describes persistent sexual harassment on the street; the other cast members walk rapidly in a circle, driving home the sense that her character is trapped.
In one powerful sequence, all of the women suddenly reel as if struck in the face, then proceed to unfold a collective story of date rape and acquaintance rape, of the betrayal they felt, of the way others insinuated that they, rather than their attackers, were at fault. The sequence involving the soldier with PTSD is shatteringly performed by Desir as the Lady in Red.
One of the most beguiling monologues is delivered by Hampton as the Lady in Brown, recalling her 8-year-old self in 1955, when her avid library reading led her to the story of Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution in the late 18th century. Inspired by this “black man . . . who refused to be a slave,’’ the girl escapes into a history that carries the power of a fable, then experiences a merger of past and present, fantasy and reality, when she meets an independent-minded boy named Toussaint.
It is Bridwell’s Lady in Green, in a funny and defiant sequence that includes the refrain “somebody almost walked off with all of my stuff,’’ who perhaps sums up what the women are striving for: “I want my stuff back. My rhythms and my voice.’’ In “For Colored Girls,’’ they have it.
FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE/WHEN THE RAINBOW IS ENUF
Play by Ntozake Shange. Directed by Dayenne C. Byron Walters. Choreographed by W. Lola Remy. Presented by Praxis Stage. At Hibernian Hall, Roxbury, through Feb. 25. Tickets $20, 617-997-7796, www.artful.ly/praxis-stage,Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin