Yearly Archives: 2010

The Town

I’m often still surprised by my own gullibility. My faith in performance (and film and television—in representation, really) means that I’m eager to see a broad swath of cultural productions, and that I read, regularly, other critics, amalgamating their comments and making choices about what to see on that basis. The Town, Ben Affleck’s new film, got very good reviews when it opened last month, and although I missed it in the theatres, I watched it last night at home on pay-per-view.

What was I thinking? And how could I forget that most reviewers (sometimes women, included) don’t watch for the things that preoccupy me—representations of gender, sexuality, race, identity, and all the ways that narratives imagine or reconceive of social relationships. So I spent an evening with The Town, waiting for something interesting to happen to one of its two female characters—both adrift in a sea of men—before I realized that of course nothing would happen.

In this familiar male redemption tale, one woman is the whore, damned to remain a loser drug addict languishing forever in Charlestown, where the story is set, and the other is the Madonna, a Yuppie who’s invaded the neighborhood with her social ideals, her sustainable gardening, and her naïve faith in her own ability to make headway among the heathens. Each of them appears in the story for only one reason: to provide foils for the hero, Doug MacRay (Affleck).

Doug is a failed hockey star, drafted by the national league but unable to last because of his hot temper. He returns to his incestuous Charlestown neighborhood, where he takes up with the band of armed robbers who have been his life-long friends and street mates. Jem (Jeremy Renner) is his best friend, an unreconstructed hellion who despite spending nine years in prison, returns to the life of crime that’s the only one he knows. Jem is also a stock character; he’s the guy who can’t see another future than the doomed trajectory on which he’s been set since his birth.

Doug, on the other hand, left the ‘nabe long enough to see something different on the other side of the highly symbolic bridge that connects Charlestown to Boston. He’s sobered up by the time The Town begins, and although he’s still willing to have quick sex with Jem’s sister, Krista (Blake Lively), whose child might or might not be his, her addition to Oxycodone, cocaine, and alcohol is now despicable to him, the repulsive habits of a life he longs to escape.

In the film’s opening scene, Doug, Jem, and the pair of subsidiary slobs who comprise their merry band rob a bank. The sequence is full of gratuitous violence, with an inexplicable cameo by Victor Garber as the bank manager whom Jem brutally, needlessly beats. The assistant manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), is enlisted to open the bank’s vault, then kidnapped to provide the robbers some measure of safety (I guess, it’s not clear and mostly serves only as a story device) as they escape.They leave Claire, blindfolded, at the beach, warning her not to open her eyes until she feels the water lapping at her toes, and threaten her with rape and murder if she identifies them to the cops.

The FBI is on to these guys, and scoop Claire up for questioning. Jon Hamm plays the crusading G-man, Special Agent Frawley, who’s determined to track down Doug and his band. He questions Claire, but she can’t identify anything but the tattoo on Jem’s neck, which she saw as he beat her boss. The FBI warns her to stick around, and then Doug comes by, ostensibly to “take care of” her, since Jem worries that she’ll turn them in. But, surprise of all surprises, Doug falls in love with Claire instead, and keeps his real identity secret.

And so continues the hero’s redemption tale, where the essentially good guy with the tragic back story tries to save himself through the love of a good woman. Doug, it seems, was raised by a criminal long incarcerated (Doug tells Claire that his father—played by Chris Cooper—has moved to the suburbs). He thinks his mother ran out on the two of them, a psychic and emotional wound the screenplay uses to explain Doug’s wild side. When it turns out (spoiler alert, but believe me, this plot point comes as no surprise when it’s revealed in the film) that his mother was intentionally overdosed by the local drug lord, Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite, acting with slimy, placid cruelty), for whom Doug’s band contracts heists, Doug gets his revenge and engineers his escape from the Charlestown life that can only, finally, kill him.

All the conventions of the genre flick by at the appropriate moments. Doug wants out; Jem forces him to do one more heist, robbing an armored car driven by a man the band knows is trigger-happy.The botched robbery lands the four men at the FBI for questioning, prompting Doug to speed up the timetable for his departure and his desire to take Claire along. But Fergie has other plans, insisting that Doug and his men rob Fenway Park or he’ll kill Claire.

Forced to cooperate, Doug and Jem carry out the elaborate plan, which goes awry as they try to escape with the cash. Tipped off by Krista, who’s been scorned by Doug, that the men are planning to rob the park, Frawley and his compatriot, Dino (Titus Welliver of The Good Wife fame), set up an ambush that takes the lives of all but Doug. Dressed as a Boston cop, he watches his friends die one by one then saunters off, avenging his mother’s death by killing Fergie and his henchman, then taking Amtrak to Miami to start his new life.

Claire, the lovely idealistic woman who sees Doug’s goodness clearly, forgives him the lie that brought him into her life. Although she’s under surveillance by the FBI, before Doug leaves, through a kind of lover’s code, Claire indicates that she’ll follow him south when the coast clears. Frawley is frustrated by Doug’s getaway; the film’s funniest line has Frawley reminding Claire that his organization is national. But somehow, Doug escapes and Claire, too, is allowed to resume her life, with the hope of reuniting with her on-the-lam lover ever in the air. The film ends on a shot of Affleck as Doug presumably on the coast of Miami, watching the sun set and waiting for Claire to join him in the new, beach-swept life he’s finally achieved.

Ho hum, is all I can say. How many times does this story have to be told? Reviewers applauded Affleck’s authoritative filmmaking and storytelling; okay, fine, he knows how to shoot a getaway scene, and he builds suspense nicely throughout. But he’s delivered this story before in his debut film, Good Will Hunting, in which he was the character who stayed and Matt Damon the one who drove off to a new life elsewhere. Reviewers admire Affleck for getting under the skin of characters they say he knows so well, the Charlestown Irish who are fiercely loyal to their families and friends, for whom their slice of life off of Boston proper is their eternal territory, for whom marrying your buddies’ sisters and starting the cycle up anew for the next generation is considered enough. Sure, Affleck and Damon themselves made good, and Affleck seems to want to honor the neighborhood he knows so well by paying it continual homage in his films (see also 2007’s Gone Baby Gone).

But really, guys. At the end of 2010, can’t we consider the women in this perennial story as something more than agents of the men’s growth? Does Krista really have to be damned, both by snitching on Doug and Jem to exact her own revenge on Doug’s determination to leave her behind, and by her addiction to narcotics and alcohol? And do the feds really have to take her kid away to make the point? Bad girlfriend, bad mother, Krista doesn’t stand a chance.

But Claire, the pure and stalwart, who’s at first fooled by Doug’s impersonation of an upright citizen, but ultimately forgives him when she learns he’s not, because he so wants to be good—can’t that stereotypical character grow into a woman with a bit of agency? When will this stock character ever stand on her own, outside the choices that the hero makes for her? Hall plays Claire with a bit of gumption—she’s the Yuppie interloper in Charlestown, but she’s fearless, even thinks she can cross “the projects” by herself to get to work. But when she tells Doug that she gets harassed on her way through the area, he and Jem take baseball bats or golf clubs to the projects and beat up a couple of guys in revenge. Claire can’t handle anything herself, because the film is only about Doug’s quest to be good and get out.

What a waste. Affleck seems a smart guy. He’s a good actor (although the Charlestown accents he and Renner, as Jem, milk for all they’re worth sound too thick and fake) and an accomplished director. But why put that talent toward such a tired story? How many more times do we have to see the hero escape his doom on the backs of women, one good, one bad, both ultimately disposal?

It’s getting to be a real snore.

The Feminist Spectator

Angels in America

I’d heard mixed things about this production, since people had such strong attachments to the original Broadway version directed by George C. Wolfe, starring Stephen Spinella as Prior and Joe Mantello as Louis, Marcia Gay Harden as Harper and Ron Liebman as Roy Cohn, with Ellen McLaughlin and Kathleen Chalfant and Jeffrey Wright in all the other key roles. In 1993, it felt life-altering to see a gay play (and an overtly Jewish play) in a Broadway theatre, cast as spectacle with no apology for how it represented gay men as the center of the universe in conversation with all the big themes of American democracy.

I remember watching Part One: Millennium Approaches, from the balcony of the Walter Kerr Theatre, thrilled as the acts flew by and stunned when the Angel came crashing through Prior’s ceiling at Part One’s end, with his campy “Very Stephen Spielberg” response ending the evening. I felt like I’d witnessed history being made, and participated in the very same cracking open of time that Kushner goes on to address more overtly in the second part of his epic play.

Michael Greif’s production for Signature Theatre represents the first major revival of Kushner’s play since its Broadway debut. So much has changed in America since 1993, when it opened, and since 1985-86, when the play is set. Even though the left press is accusing Obama of returning to 80s-style Reaganomics with his recent compromise on taxes, we’re a long way from Reagan’s America in 2010. Although the political scene he draws, and Kushner’s incisive critique of democracy, still resonate, the sense of outsiderness that each of the play’s characters evokes has changed dramatically, if not completely.

And yet this production doesn’t quite present Angels as a history lesson, which I think (I’m not sure) is to its credit. That is, the production doesn’t seem particularly set in the 1980s—the costumes seem contemporary, with the exception of the occasional cut of a suit jacket or a particular pair of shoes. This production is full of detail, with each setting crammed with stuff, where the Broadway version was more abstracted and seemed to take place in nearly empty space. But at the Signature, the furniture and the sets are also not necessarily specific to the 1980s, a choice perhaps made to ensure the play’s relevance as we move into the second decade of the new millennium.

Perhaps most jarringly, the actors’ bodies are clearly contemporary. I recall Spinella playing Prior in the ‘90s, and how the audience gasped in unison when he took off his clothes for the scene in which he’s examined by a nurse in the hospital. Spinella was rail thin and his body was covered with prosthetic Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. His portrayal of a man afflicted with advanced stage HIV/AIDS was almost too convincing, and spectators murmured openly with concern not just for Prior’s health, but for the well-being of the actor who played him.

By contrast, Eric Bryant, whom I saw play Prior at the December 24, 2010, performance (he understudied for Christian Borle), looked like the picture of health. His body is muscled and lithe, covered with a reasonable layer of healthy pink flesh that made the fake KS lesions seem too much like the pasted-on representations that they are. Although dark circles were drawn under Bryant’s eyes to make him look ill, believing that he had HIV/AIDS was a stretch, despite convincing performances of cramping and pain that he played scrawled on the stage floor. (Incidentally, I heard the same comments about Borle’s body from friends and colleagues who saw his performance.)

Angels was written well before the protease inhibitor cocktails that have extended the lives of people with HIV/AIDS and even, some say, made it a chronic rather than a fatal disease. Perhaps this 2010 representation of Prior is true to what people with HIV look like now. Perhaps asking the actor to lose 25 pounds to play the role would throw the production into a period verisimilitude that Greif seems to have wanted to avoid. But the choice means something about how HIV/AIDS is represented in 2010, and says something about what the pandemic means now, too. If it’s more difficult to see Prior as doomed in this production, how does Kushner’s play change?

Since Angels was the first Broadway play to take seriously the cost of the AIDS pandemic for gay male communities (Larry Kramer’s earlier, important play The Normal Heart played Off Broadway), the changed status of the disease (at least for those who can afford the life-prolonging treatment) shifts the play’s urgency. (For a terrific history of the representation of the pandemic in American theatre, I highly recommend my friend David Román’s book, Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS.)

Likewise, in a political moment in which the president just signed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and when at least in some states in the U.S. and in countries around the world, gay men and lesbians can, if they wish, get married, the status of queer people as an underclass has changed from what it was when the Broadway production of Angels premiered. The play was already a history, even as it made history—that is, it was set six years before the time of its production. Now, we’re nearly 30 years past the dark days of the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and St. Vincent’s Hospital, where so many of those who suffered from the disease in Manhattan went for treatment, has long since been closed.

So what does Angels mean now? Is it just a history lesson for those who weren’t there for one of the most traumatic moments in American politics and culture? Is it a trip into nostalgia of a peculiar kind for those of us who were there? And what of the play’s other themes, its attention to Jewishness, to democracy, to community, and to renewal? When I teach the play now—in courses on American drama, queer theatre, and most recently, Jewish identity and performance—I’m invariably moved by Kushner’s fervor for something better, by his acute intelligence, his inventive theatricality, his ability to interweave so many lives and experiences and come out at the end with a new idea of faith and family that his characters actually try to practice. And I’m moved by the memory of how galvanized I was by what was in the early ‘90s his bold take on gay themes and characters.

Seeing the Signature production, I felt as moved as I am when I reread the play. Greif’s provides a more intimate experience than Wolfe’s. The Signature’s Peter Norton Theatre is small, wide but not that deep, and Greif’s staging uses the extended proscenium to the play’s advantage by setting simultaneous scenes side-by-side and using the apron for transitional moments and “traveling.”Where the Broadway version saw the characters crossing the stage in wide arcs to tease out their interrelationships across the space, the Signature version uses interlocking sets moved about by unconcealed stage-hands that wheel into and away from one another.

I liked this choice more, as it came to represent, as Part One proceeded, the continuum of time and space that preoccupies Kushner, as the sets move together, break apart, swirl around, and return to their place, changed. Even the accumulation of detail in each set—the unpacked boxes in Harper and Joe Pitt’s Brooklyn apartment; the bookcases in Prior and Louis’s place, sharing a wall with Harper and Joe’s; the café where Louis and Belize talk (or where Louis talks and Belize listens), decorated with realistic cups and counters—all of this seemed to evoke the messy chaos of complicated lives as they spiral together and bounce apart. The production feels rooted in quotidian detail, which doesn’t detract from its philosophizing so much as ground it more concretely in the progress of our common lives.

The casting in this production also brings a whole new aspect to the work. Zachary Quinto, as Louis, provides a much more centered eye to this version of the play’s storm. Louis’s neuroses are tamped down in Quinto’s quieter, less flamboyant performance, and he seems to think through his words, instead of just letting them tumble out as Mantello did in the original. As a result, Louis seems a more careful, reflective character, which makes his inability to stick by Prior as he falls ill that much more painful.

Louis’s coffee shop scene with Belize (Billy Porter) retains much of its grim hilarity, as Louis’s political insights pour out alongside the racial insensitivities on which Porter comments by raising his eyebrows with alarm and incredulity. But the scene also demonstrates how hard Louis works intellectually, if not emotionally, to come up with an analysis that lets him move through a very complex life. In Quinto’s hands, Louis is much more empathetic, which gives the play a new emotional resonance.

Porter, in the difficult role of the only person of color in Kushner’s play, presents Belize, too, as grounded in his post-drag queen seriousness and his lingering, cutting campiness. Porter plays Belize less flamboyantly than Jeffrey Wright’s original performance, which brings the character more depth and helps make his outsiderness more poignant.

Bill Heck plays Joe Pitt with moving intensity. He’s slightly less of a pretty face than, for instance, Patrick Wilson, who played the role in Mike Nichol’s 2003 HBO film version of Angels, which somehow makes his own struggles with his sexuality, his fealty to his wife and his religion, and his conservative politics that much more persuasive and compelling. His physical revulsion for Harper (Zoe Kazan) reads palpably here, along with the queer desire he can’t tame or name.

Kazan, as Harper, brings new shadings to the role of the woman driven mad by her husband’s lies.Harper’s scenes draw out much of Kushner’s more theatrical, fantastical imaginings, and Kazan plays them with a thoughtful probity missing from Marcia Gay Harden’s Broadway original or from Mary Louise Parker’s HBO performance in the role. Kazan is a slight young woman with an appealing, round, open face. Heck, as Joe, towers over her, a physical demonstration of their power differential. But Kazan’s thoughtfulness gives her more power than most Harpers I’ve seen—she doesn’t fold as easily in the face of Joe’s cruelty and dissembling.

Greif’s staging allows Harper’s and Prior’s scenes to actually intermingle on the small Signature stage. Where Wolfe had the two characters meet in the middle of what felt like a vast, abstracted Broadway proscenium to play out their fantastical encounters, Greif moves Harper into Prior’s apartment and hospital room as their parallel scenes proceed. Although the choice might be less theatrical and spectacular than Wolfe’s broader staging, these scenes become more intimate and human in Greif’s conception of the play.

Harper and Prior don’t seem quite as unhinged, their visions less mad than melancholy and poignant. They see one another as soul mates in their mutual loss and uncertainty, and perform their brief encounters with mutual admiration and affection. Greif’s direction might not emphasize the pageantry or “fantasia” of Kushner’s play the way Wolfe’s did, but I found myself quite moved by the more quotidian-scale interactions among the characters. It’s almost as if Wolfe directed the original Angels as a big, presentational Broadway musical, while Greif directs it as a canonical straight play.

Bryant, standing in for Borle at the performance I saw, was wonderful as Prior. Although he’s a specimen of perfect health, and not quite convincing as a young man dying of HIV/AIDS, Bryant dignified Prior’s vulnerable neediness and brought a sweetness to his portrayal that made Prior less a campy queen than a sad, sometimes angry, more whimsical gay man muddling through the hand he’s dealt.

History’s revolutions since the play’s Broadway debut in 1993 seem most obvious with this new Prior. When Part One rings down with the Angel of History breaking through the ceiling of his apartment to announce that the great work begins, Prior famously exclaims, “Very Stephen Spielberg.” Spinella played this remark in the original production as high camp, but Bryant delivers it with a kind of wonder, a shift in tone that seems to signal the wholesale difference of 2010 from 1993. Camp and irony as a response to the cataclysmic HIV/AIDS pandemic don’t read the same way now as they did then.

The campy spectacle of the whole play, in fact, is toned down in Greif’s production, which seems to me a sensible reinterpretation for a new age. Even the Angel (Robin Weigert) is more human here than the abstracted, mythic figure portrayed by Ellen McLaughlin on Broadway. What seems to be an inherent goodness and warmth emanates from Weigert’s face as the Angel. Rather than a frightening godhead determined to stop the flow of time, this Angel seems a happily revivifying visitor, a good fairy rather than an evil harbinger of pending doom.

The wires on which Weigert flies in are obvious in Greif’s production. The Angel moves on a pulley system nearly to the lip of the apron, rather than floating in the upstage right corner of the scene where Wolfe put McLaughlin. She’s less remote, as a result, and more alive, less foreboding and more entrancing. (On this, for one of the first times ever, I seem to agree with Ben Brantley, in his October 28, 2010, New York Times review of the production.) I don’t know what this shift will mean for Part Two: Petestroika, but I’m eager to see.

Robin Bartlett, as the formidable Hannah Pitt, is off to a good start in Part One, although it’s difficult to erase the memory of the wonderful Kathleen Chalfant in the ensemble of roles Bartlett now assumes. Frank Wood, as Roy Cohn, brings perhaps the most captivating change of tone to his role, playing Cohn as a slithering snake, running his tongue constantly across his lips between the very wet deliveries of his lines. Cohn’s predatory sexuality reads very clearly in Wood’s performance, but his Jewishness—which seems highlighted by Wood’s choices—is repulsive in newly unsettling ways.

By contrast, Quinto, as Louis, barely reads as Jewish at all. Toning down the character’s neuroses, and with it, his excessive hand gestures and speech patterns, Quinto loses some of Louis’s motivating ethnicity. As a result, this version of Angels, so far, seems more about assimilation than about difference—Jewish or gay male or, so far, Mormon, for that matter. I’m not sure that’s the wrong choice for the play, in 2010, as in what I’ve seen already, the production speaks to something more humanist and universal than it did in 1993, when representing gay and Jewish difference on Broadway so complexly seemed like such an historical triumph.

But I’m only halfway through this revival of Angels in America. I see Part Two: Perestroika at the end of this week, and will report back on the grand finale. But I left Part One: Millennium Approaches moved and fed, buoyed by Kushner’s enduring text and by Greif’s intelligent, intimate production.

‘Til then,

The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot. 

The Black Swan

Natalie Portman deftly defies the genre conventions of what would otherwise be a predictable, unsettling melodrama about an unhinged ballet dancer who goes not so quietly crazy just as her career takes off. Because of Portman’s uncanny empathy for her character, the over-the-top camera angles and story lines of Darren Aronofsky’s The Black Swan aren’t quite as irritating as they might be without a lead actor who brings such nuanced insight and intuition to the role.

Portman’s plays Nina, an utterly, single-mindedly devoted ballerina with a prestigious New York City ballet company. Her technique is perfect but she lacks the requisite passion for the leading roles. The company’s artistic director, a French-accented martinet named “Thomas” (but pronounced “Tomah”), rewards Nina by casting her as the white and the black swan in his “avant-garde” production of Swan Lake, but only after he attacks her sexually and she bites his lips defending herself in response.

One of the film’s most interesting insights is into the twisted relationship between male ballet impresarios and their female dancers. Vincent Cassel plays Thomas with a cruel sneer in his upper lip and a leer in his eyes as he challenges Nina to give up her quest for perfection so that she might convincingly portray the evil and seductive Black Swan with the wild abandon he conceives for the role. That he uses his own body against hers to force her to find her strength is part of what Aronofsky’s film wants to critique, but also partly what makes watching it uncomfortable. Thomas doesn’t even pretend there’s any other way to “get” the performance he wants from his star but to sexually humiliate her publicly and to push her physical boundaries privately. Nina wants the role so badly she’ll do anything to get it and then keep it, even as she becomes more and more deranged.As her relationship with Thomas gets more and more entwined, she begins to suffer from a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, idealizing and even identifying with Thomas and his mercurial cruelty.

Haunting the proceedings as a cautionary object lesson is Beth (Winona Ryder), the aging (that is, over 30), once-glorious star of the company who’s forced into retirement so that Nina can take her place. All the dancers want to be Beth; when Nina sneaks into the older woman’s dressing room before her star casting is announced, she steals Beth’s lipstick, a pack of cigarettes, and a letter opener, totemic objects that Nina carries as talismans toward her own success.

But Beth’s precipitous tumble from the top to the bottom turns ugly when she won’t go gracefully into retirement. Instead, she causes a scene at a benefit party and then throws herself into New York City traffic, landing in a lonely hospital room where she languishes with ugly, disfiguring and debilitating scars. She sits in a wheelchair, her head canted down at a painful angle as she contemplates the cruelties of fate. Sadly, Ryder’s shrewish portrayal of the vanquished star mirrors too closely the details of her own career, and her one-dimensional, caricatured acting doesn’t help redeem her performance or the character. Nina, fascinated by the woman she’s replacing, visits Beth in her hospital room as some sort of weird penance for precipitating the star’s fate, but the visits aren’t instructive so much as increasingly macabre and violent as Nina’s reality begins to shatter.

Aronofsky signals his vision of his own leading lady with heavy-handed shots of Portman fragmented and multiplied by the various mirrors in which her life is continually reflected. In the claustrophobic apartment she shares with her equally insane mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a mirror by the front door is cut into pie-shaped wedges that breaks Nina’s image into pieces, and the three-sided mirror in which she practices and obsessively laces and re-laces her toe shoes ensures that even at home, she’s always onstage.

Nina’s mother, it seems, was a corps member herself before she stopped dancing to raise Nina. No father is evident, just the suffocating co-dependency of two women who represent different generations of the same dream. Erica both wants Nina to succeed and desperately needs her to fail, so that her daughter will cling to her, imprisoned in the child-like state Erica insists on preserving.Nina’s bedroom is lined with rows of white and pink stuffed animals that stare down at her bed, and every night, she goes to sleep with the tinny music box sounds of “Swan Lake” that her mother sets in motion to soothe her. Erica intrudes on Nina’s privacy, checking the ever-worsening rash that blooms across her daughter’s back, chiding her for mutilating herself and at the same time, helping Nina hide her wounds. When Nina is cast in the lead role in Swan Lake, Erica doesn’t set out to sabotage her success, but willingly abets Nina’s fast downward spiral when it begins.

The real agent of Nina’s downfall is the woman who might otherwise be her savior. Lily (a stunning Mila Kunis) arrives in the company from LA full of self-confident sexuality and the distinctly unballet-like languor of the west coast. Nina catches a glimpse of her first on a subway, distracted from her own image in its Plexiglas windows by Lily’s hair and the headphones she wears. Lily makes her first appearance at the studio by banging open and closed the door while Nina is dancing, causing her to stumble in her audition for Swan Lake. But Lily’s laxity proves a refreshing counter-balance to a ballet world in which young women are wound tight, can’t eat, throw up what they do get down, and like Nina, are so disciplined to be perfect that they have no lives outside their dancing.

Lily, the film’s own black swan, loves sensuality and sexuality in equal measure. After she and Nina get off to a rocky start, Lily visits Nina at home, shocking both her and Erica with her brashness.Undone by Erica’s haranguing, Nina impulsively goes to a bar with Lily, where she’s persuaded to take a disinhibiting drug that Lily insists will just relax her and only last for two hours, “most.”Tempted by her desire to be free of her mother, and by Thomas’s insistence that she “touch herself” as homework to help her loosen up, Nina lets Lily drug her cocktail and gets very uninhibited indeed.

The two women flirt with men who are deeply disinterested in ballet—to Nina’s shock, since the art forms her entire world—then dance together wildly in a scene shot in pink light and edited frenetically to represent Nina’s descent into drug-induced ecstasy. The evening ends when Lily makes a pass at Nina in a taxi, and Nina brings her home, to the shock and dismay of Erica, who tries to batter down her bedroom door while the two young women have very wild, hot, and explicit sex.

The sex scene is the film’s pivot point, as it demonstrates how much Nina represses for her art, and how passionate indeed she can be. High as a kite, Nina won’t stand for her mother’s interdictions, and pulls Lily into her bedroom, where they rip off one another’s clothes and practically swallow each other’s tongues. Aronofsky films and edits this scene, too, with close-ups of body parts and quick jump cuts that heighten the intensity, until he finally focuses in on Nina’s sexual awakening under Lily’s ministrations. The scene reveals that other side of the carefully controlled artist is a young woman of painful depth and desire, who revels in just the kind of passion Thomas has been so eager to induce.

But the next morning, things go quickly awry. Lily is gone, but the pole Nina uses to keep her bedroom door propped closed hasn’t been disturbed. Nina wakes hung-over and late for rehearsal, where she finds Lily already in costume, performing in her role. Immediately, Lily becomes a palpable threat to Nina’s ascendancy, and when Nina refers to their evening together, Lily accuses her of having a “lezzie wet dream,” and denies that anything happened. From there, Nina’s sanity teeters ever closer to the brink, and Aronofsky plays even more fast and loose with what’s real for her and what’s real for us.

From the film’s beginning, moments that seem true are suddenly proven false. In the bathroom of the ballet benefit party, Nina’s ragged cuticles begin to bleed and she can’t get them to stop, eventually peeling a three-inch strip of flesh from her finger. But when she’s interrupted by, as it happens, Lily knocking on the door, Nina looks down to see her finger miraculously healed. This girl bleeds terribly—her toenails break from dancing on them, her back bleeds from scratching, and blood continually reddens the water in which she bathes and washes. But we’re never sure if her wounds are real, and neither, it seems, is Nina.

[Spoiler alert.] In fact, in the film’s climactic scene, Nina seems to kill Lily in a violent rage, shattering her dressing room’s full-length mirror with her rival’s head and then dragging her body onto the cold tile of her bathroom floor. When Lily’s blood seeps under the door, Nina covers it with a towel and goes off to triumphantly perform the second act of Swan Lake, where she nails her performance as the black swan with galvanizing passion and rage, murderous in her seductress’s make-up.

But when she returns to her dressing room to dress for the ballet’s third and final act, Lily comes knocking on her door to compliment Nina’s performance. The body in the bathroom is gone and so is the blood. Nina redresses herself in her white swan costume, but as she pulls on her white feathers, she finds in her own abdomen the seeping red wound she thought she’d inflicted in Lily’s.With morbid fascination and a strange glint of triumph, she retracts the shard of broken mirror she seemed to have used to kill her enemy.

As she returns to the stage to finish the ballet exultantly, we’re not sure if this, too, is a hallucination. The white swan falls to her death and Nina falls to the mattress that catches her behind the set, where her fellow dancers and Thomas surround her, extolling her glory and her talent. He calls her “little princess,” the affectionate but diminishing name he once used for Beth (just as Lily predicted he would), then notices with dismay that her white costume is marred by a spreading stain of very red blood. But as she lies there, apparently dying, Nina says both “I was perfect” and “I felt it,” fulfilling her own expectations and Thomas’s wish.

In Aronofsky’s vision, she’s also finally become a woman, her technical perfection infused with the reckless passion of adulthood and her cocoon-like innocence stained with the menstrual-like blood of her masochistic wound. The swan in the story dies, and while it’s not clear if Nina survives or not, we’re supposed to think she’s at the very least killed off the part of herself that held her too-adult passion and desire at bay.

I suppose Aronofsky also wants us to consider the depravity of those who give themselves to an art that gives so little in return. The rewards, The Black Swan suggests, are fleeting, ephemeral evenings of triumph and applause, which fades too quickly as ballet dancers inevitably age. As my film-going companion, Stacy, pointed out, adoring fans are faceless and strangely unrepresented in the film. Nina peeks out at the audience before she performs, but it’s really the adoration of her colleagues that she craves and finally achieves when they surround her fallen body at the film’s end.

Aronofsky indicts the cruelty through which Thomas realizes his vision of Swan Lake by manipulating the already unstable Nina, but the writer-director’s camera also enjoys a bit too much how the story makes Nina suffer, and happily represents her as a martyr to her art.

Thriller conventions bring The Black Swan its rather perverse excitement, as Aronofsky keeps the viewer off balance, like Nina, through quick confusing cuts to a murky woman who keeps turning up in the troubled young woman’s fantasy/reality. When Nina’s masturbating, following Thomas’s instructions to “loosen up,” nearly at climax she turns her head and sees another woman sitting on the chair in her bedroom, watching her. The cut happens so quickly, it’s not clear if the woman is Erica, the mother, or another young woman whose face and figure recurs in Nina’s dreams/fantasies, who may or may not be a younger Erica or some other Nina-style doppelganger. I kept expecting some previous trauma that would explain Nina’s insanity, but Aronofsky never delivers a back-story to illuminate her strange psychology. That choice heightens the film’s suggestion that it’s her single-minded dedication to art—encouraged by her similarly obsessed mother—that’s driven Nina mad.

Barbara Hershey is convincing as the over-bearing, bitter mother who watches her daughter achieve the career she always wanted. Erica lives through Nina and resents her deeply, calling incessantly on Nina’s cellphone, which displays “MOM” in insistent capital letters as the phone bleats plaintively. Erica doesn’t seem to be employed, but instead sits alone in a small room in their apartment (how these two afford a three-bedroom flat in Manhattan is never explained), creating Munch-like paintings of her own (or is it Nina’s?) face, images that seem to scream and follow Nina with their eyes when she peeks into the room. Erica and Nina’s bond is both incestuous and ambivalent, as they’re attracted and repulsed by everything they mean to one another.

Nina’s fantasy hook-up with Lily also seems to sublimate her strange push-pull relationship with Erica, while at the same time, to represent the entirely incestuous, homosocial, female-dominated world of ballet. Strangely, though, it’s also a heterosexual world, in Aronofsky’s conception. Lily enflames Nina’s jealousy during a performance when she flirts with the callous guy who’s dancing the white swan’s romantic object. The only obvious gay man in this world is the accompanist, who finally slams the lid on his piano after hours of solo rehearsing with Nina, telling her superciliously that he has a life (she, clearly, doesn’t) and leaving her in the dark as the building’s lights shut down.

What, finally, to make of The Black Swan? Aronofsky has created an absorbing, if sometimes repellent, Grand Guignol of a film about artistic cruelty and excess, one that might be laughable if the leading performances (Portman, Kunis, Cassel, and Hershey, especially) weren’t so heart-felt, layered, and persuasive. Portman’s shattered poise, shaky vulnerability, masterful artistry, and desperate desire for both success and real connection make Nina a character who’s difficult to wrest your eyes from. Even as Aronofsky dismantles the foundation of her world and her sanity, and keeps the viewer equally unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, Portman holds us squarely on Nina’s side, hoping she’ll be victorious against all the forces lined up against her.

Too bad that Nina’s victory requires a self-mutilation so extreme, she can only succeed by succumbing to her own death. That’s a message that’s not good for the girls.

The Feminist Spectator

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In the Wake

Lisa Kron’s terrific new play at the Public Theatre (through November 21st) is about a woman with important ideas who’s not afraid to risk the wrath of her best friends to talk and talk about the things that matter most to her. Ellen (played by the wondrous Marin Ireland) cares deeply about the world. She believes in democracy and has ideas about how it could be improved. She’s a woman with a mission and an analysis, so although she spends her share of time shouting at Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, she’s also writes and speaks around the country about the tax structure and its loopholes and how policies that seem benign can promote the growth of unsightly strip malls—for only one example.

The central conflict of In the Wake is between the private and the public, realms too often (still) mutually exclusive for women. Part of Kron’s argument is that Ellen should be able to have a rich, supportive private life while her public persona as a writer and intellectual grows ever more visible, busy, and intense. Her friends create the kinship structure she calls her “family,” even though she and her male partner, Danny (Michael Chernus), are unmarried, she isn’t sure she wants children, and is closest to Danny’s sister, Kayla (Susan Pourfar), and her female partner, Laurie (Danielle Skraastad). But even this nouveau family can’t tolerate her desire to “have it all,” so Ellen is forced to choose among her multiple desires and her numerous ambitions. [Spoiler alert!] Sadly, she’s left punishingly alone at the play’s end.

Danny, Kayla, and Laurie provide Ellen’s central domestic nest, set in an East Village apartment decorated in early graduate student (smartly designed by David Korins). Jerry-rigged, rickety bookcases line the walls, stuffed with old textbooks, new novels, and both the Merck Manual and the DSM-IV, as though the characters are determined to self-diagnose their issues. But the two women—Judy and Amy—who find the most purchase on Kron’s cool assessment of relationships and offer Ellen alternative life choices are situated outside the cozy coupled-ness of Ellen and Danny’s apartment.

Judy, an old (and older, at 56-years to Ellen’s 30-something) friend, is an oddball curmudgeon, socially inept and disinterested in conventionally female or feminine behavior. Judy (Deirdre O’Connell, terrific in the mordant role) chooses to be an aid worker in Africa but won’t vote in American elections because she doesn’t believe that democracy works. Visiting Ellen’s apartment, she flees to the fire escape to smoke, unable to tolerate the placid domesticity of Ellen’s friends.

Judy is reluctant to mother her biracial niece, Tessa (Miriam F. Glover), who wants Judy to parent her when Judy’s sister gets mired in domestic abuse and drugs. But mothering doesn’t interest Judy and she refuses to pretend otherwise. In one of the play’s most painful scenes, Kayla and Laurie take Tessa out shopping, and the girl returns with a t-shirt she bought especially for Judy. Judy can’t even arrange her face in an obligatory expression of parental pleasure, and has to be reminded to take the gift with her when she and Tessa leave.

In Judy, Kron offers a trenchant rejoinder to those who presume mothering is women’s birthright.Judy makes an effective life otherwise and elsewhere, lending what little she can to the process of peace-keeping in the world’s most troubled and contentious zones. Judy is flawed and not proud of it, but she’s not ashamed of it, either. Conventional standards—whether conservative and heteronormative or progressive and lesbian—leave her cold. Instead, she’s sober about her prospects, an extraordinary realist with clear and appropriately low expectations of herself and of her country.

In the Wake views Judy with some ambivalence. Ellen’s family of choice dislikes her for all the quirks Ellen finds compelling, and Kayla and Laurie implicitly judge her for not parenting Tessa as they would. On the other hand, Kron manages a sharp critique of Kayla and Laurie’s wrong-headed liberal presumptions. The lesbians find themselves shocked that when Tessa complains that her DC school friends criticize her politics, it turns out the girl is a fan of then-President Bush. Kayla and Laurie are eager to support what they assume will be Tessa’s social radicalism, and neither of them knows quite how to handle a tween-aged African American Republican.

Over the play’s decade or so span, Ellen becomes a respected writer and commentator who travels frequently, speaking on panels at high-profile progressive events. At one of her conferences, she reconnects with Amy (Jenny Bacon), a lesbian filmmaker who’s the older sister of a childhood friend. The two women spend hours talking after a conference panel and, as we watch, begin to fall in love.

The scene of their mutual attraction is lovely and nicely handled by director Leigh Silverman and the performers. The women sit in chairs downstage simply talking to one another in warm light sculpted beautifully by designer Alexander V. Nichols. As they discuss ideas and art, sexual electricity begins to course between them, and the yearning shyness of seduction draws them together. Ellen surprises herself by responding physically to Amy’s intensity of being and listening.Amy admits that she’s all “feeling,” while Ellen describes herself as someone who lives in her head. Opposites attract, as Ellen luxuriates in the warm and new pleasure of being with her lover.

At first, Danny graciously accommodates Ellen’s desire for Amy, even though Kayla and Laurie are furious with her for hurting him. As Ellen tries to maintain both relationships, her lesbian friends become more and more condemnatory. Kron depicts the lesbian couple as conservative here; Kayla and Laurie disapprove of Ellen’s affair, not because she’s seeing a woman but because they believe in fidelity, monogamy, and marriage, values Ellen expressly doesn’t share. They wield their assimilationist politics like a club, refusing to condone Ellen’s desire for something more.

Instead of applauding her eagerness to experience a large and capacious life, they shut her down, close her out, and finally, leave her. Kayla and Laurie decide to move to Madison, to pursue graduate school and children of their own. Even Danny, who’s an empathetic and talented public elementary school teacher, gets worn down by Ellen’s love of the liminal and the frenetic energy of her disrupted life. He forces her to choose between him and Amy, and although she chooses him, she never fully returns to their emotional partnership. Chernus subtly transforms Danny from a happy, complacent teddy bear into a disappointed, bitter guy, bemused in spite of himself that he’s not walking away with the girl.

Ireland’s performance as Ellen reminds me of Joe Mantello’s turn as Louis in Tony Kushner’sAngels in America. She talks fast, her words tumbling over one another, her ideas rushing to get out, to be tested, to be challenged or defended. Ireland makes every bit of Ellen’s bracingly articulate political analysis sing, in a heart-felt, thoughtful interrogation of what contemporary politics mean.The play moves from Bush’s theft of the 2000 election, through his second election, to the war in Iraq and the assassination of Saddam Hussein to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Newspaper headlines (in projections by Nichols) play over the proscenium between scenes, locating us in time as history hurtles by. The news chants a constant litany of everything democracy can’t fix. But Ellen keeps writing and speaking, unabashed in her belief that democracy can indeed work.

The play truly wants to be about the inextricability of the public and the private, to underline that individual choices like Ellen’s are indeed the stuff of which political change is made. The program includes a wonderful quote from James Baldwin:

Any honest examination of the national life proves how far we are from the standard of human freedom with which we began. The recovery of this standard demands of everyone who loves this country a hard look at himself, for the greatest achievements much begin somewhere, and they always begin with the person. If we are not capable of this examination, we may yet become one of the most distinguished and monumental failures in the history of nations.

But exactly Ellen’s determination that her choices do have a larger meaning leaves her punished.Ellen grieves when she loses both Amy and Danny because she wasn’t prepared for loss. She aspires in ways she believes her country teaches her to, and when she can’t have it all, she says she feels “ruined.” Ireland plays Ellen’s grief (especially when she learns Amy has started a new relationship) with palpable, wrenching empathy.

At the same time, as Ellen painfully explores her new depth of feeling, I wondered why it’s always the thinking women who have to be transformed, to be made to feel excruciating emotions that are supposed to teach them something about themselves. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone who feelsdeeply was transformed into someone who thinks intensely for a change? Or if the two options weren’t so polarized? This is another way in which it seems smart women aren’t allowed to have “it all.”

Ironically, Judy, the realist, ends as the play’s hero. Judy’s word sticks. The accumulation of newspaper headlines indicates that democracy doesn’t really work, just as she insists, and all of Ellen’s flying around giving talks on prestigious panels and writing for all the right publications doesn’t seem to change anything. Kron, via Judy, suggests the hopelessness of a certain kind of political analysis that doesn’t radically address the fact that entrenched power structures in the U.S. are white, male, middle-class, and straight, and that voting doesn’t really seem to change that (witness the recent mid-term elections).

When Ellen is astonished by the emotional free-fall in which she finds herself at the play’s end, Judy remarks that Ellen’s surprise comes from the privilege of expecting never to fall at all. She gently accuses her friend of particularly American sentiments that would have no purchase in parts of the world where people don’t presume fairness as a given. Judy calls out Ellen’s middle-class- and U.S.-based blind spots.

In fact, blind spots provide the play’s central trope, as Ellen often steps out of the narrative action to comment, in retrospect, on what she failed to see as the events unfolded. Ireland handles these moments of earnest, rueful direct address beautifully. In the tradition of Kron’s solo work in 2.5 Minute Ride and Well (her “solo performance with some other people in it,” which was Tony-nominated on Broadway in 2006 and also directed by Silverman), the monologues are self-excoriations of Ellen’s inability to recognize her own privilege.

But exactly her shock at the partialness of her self-understandings makes Ellen a bit difficult to empathize with as a character. She enters into her romantic, sexual, and political engagements with great good will but also with the tunnel-visioned voraciousness of someone hungry to have as many meaningful experiences as she can. She says she forces herself to be brave in the world because she doesn’t want to die confronting a catalogue of things she didn’t have the courage to do.

Whether or not Ellen is truly “likable” is one of the play’s conundrums, especially for a spectator who doesn’t want to condemn her for wanting two sexual partners of different genders, and doesn’twant to damn her for not wanting to marry either one of them, and doesn’t want to belittle her for her overarching commitment to social change.

Many male playwrights create male characters that have multiple partners and don’t want to settle down as they pursue their noble professional and personal ambitions. But female characters in the same positions too often die from cancer, leave jobs they’re very good at to have uncompromised emotional lives, or give up their personal relationships to have satisfying careers. That’s what makes plays like Wit and Third and Time Stands Still so unnerving—they punish their accomplished female characters for being brilliant or sexy or unwilling to settle down and domesticate themselves.

Likewise, with In the Wake, why should Ellen be judged for pursuing her personal and professional desires? Ireland makes her galvanizing, even when the character’s behavior is self-absorbed and narcissistic, despite her best intentions. And Kron steers clear of pat realist psychologizing that would explain Ellen’s behavior through some emotional deficit like a father complex or a remote mother. In the Wake instead insists that Ellen’s choices are conscious and purposeful, fueled by emotional and intellectual desire.

I wish Ellen wasn’t left alone at the play’s end. But I love the daring of Kron’s play, her willingness to work through ideas about how political and personal change happens. I love that her characters respond to events in unexpected ways. And Ellen’s bravery, strength of spirit, intelligence of mind, and depth of feeling make her one of the most complex women characters I’ve encountered onstage all year. I love that even though her choices might leave turbulence in their wake, she refuses to take the easy way through her life.

In the Wake ends on a melancholy note, but in the hands of such a talented writer, director, and cast, I can’t help but find its optimism. The program includes a poem by Mary Oliver called “The Uses of Sorrow”:

(in my sleep I dreamed
this poem)

Someone I loved once gave

a box full of

It took me years to

that, this too, was a

So is this play.

The Feminist Spectator

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For Colored Girls

Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf was one of the first feminist performance texts of the 1970s. Shange wrote the choreopoem in bars and performance spaces in Berkeley, often performing the monologues herself, until she stitched them together and turned them into a tour de force ensemble piece for an African American female cast playing characters named only by the color of their outfits (Lady in Red, Lady in Brown, etc.).

Wearing loosely draped, flowing skirts and leotards that let them move in unison and in counterpoint, and capped with head scarves that opened their faces and emphasized their gold hoop earrings, the performers (including Robbie McCauley and Laurie Carlos, who continue to write and perform work about women of color) glowed with the power, anger, and inspiration of Shange’s rallying cry to female agency.

The monologues chronicle abuse of the most egregious and casual kinds. A psychotic, alcoholic returning Vietnam veteran named Beau Willie Brown abuses his girlfriend and finally drops their two children from the window of their fifth floor apartment because he thinks she is cheating on him and because she refuses to marry him. A woman is raped by a casual acquaintance she thinks she’s dating. Another woman is played by her lover’s chronic infidelity. Another woman gets pregnant and undergoes the trial of an illegal abortion. And more.

After describing in visceral, searing detail the various ways people—mostly men—messed with their “stuff,” the women form a circle of collective strength and declare that they found god in themselves and love her fiercely.

On stage, the 20 different choreopoems are danced and spoken, creating whirls of color, movement, and non-narrative interaction, as each of the seven “ladies” takes center stage to share her story.The others listen and react, and offer gestures of support or comfort. But they aren’t really characters engaged in a psychologically oriented narrative with a beginning, middle, or end. Shange’s play derives its universality from the specific stories she tells, but they aren’t attached to characters with conventional through-lines, objectives, or actions.

The performers are essentially themselves, except when they pick up the thread of their individual monologues to deliver a slice of life that could belong to anyone—especially anyone, that is, who’s African American and female. But the feminist power of Shange’s play comes from how it generalizes across experience, to women who’ve felt disappointed and betrayed by placing all their hopes and dreams in relationships and finally decide to put themselves first and perhaps even last.Although the play is thoroughly grounded in the experiences of African American women, many women of all races find common cause with the stories the “colored girls” relate.

for colored girls triumphed on Broadway in 1976 after its initial run at Joe Papp’s Public Theatre in downtown Manhattan. The play was the first I ever saw on Broadway. As a young college-aged white girl from Pittsburgh who’d never seen theatre like this or heard these stories before, I was overcome by the experience. I still vividly remember those powerful African American women talking to the audience, wearing their colorful costumes and moving with the grace of dancers.

In the years after I first saw the play, I learned much more about feminism and theatre, and now rotate for colored girls through the Women and Performance or Theatre and Social Change courses I offer. It teaches beautifully. Even its typography, which eschews capital letters and sets each monologue as a verse poem, represents Shange’s refusal to bow to the conventions of theatre, and its stories remain vivid indictments of a society that disempowers people because of their gender, race, and class.

I’ve seen revivals of the play over the last 30-odd years, but none as striking and powerful as that original Broadway production, none that spoke clearly to the specifics of its contemporary moment.Filmmaker Tyler Perry, however, has adapted Shange’s play into a movie called simply For Colored Girls, and has found a way to make it meaningful in the 21st century by suggesting that so many of the issues it assays remain urgent even now.

To make the film more than an archival documentary of the play, writer/director/producer Perry creates a framework around the monologues, devising an interwoven story of ten African American women and five men whose lives touch in unexpected ways. Crystal (Shange’s Lady in Brown, played by the wrenching, powerful Kimberly Elise) inhabits the horrific story of Beau Willie Brown, playing the woman he abuses physically and then emotionally by forcing her to watch her children die.

Around Crystal’s story, Perry layers in the other poems as adjacent narratives. Crystal works for Joanna (the Lady in Red, played by a steely Janet Jackson), her boss’s face an impassive mask of wealth and cruel, haughty class and race superiority until her demeanor finally breaks and she finds common cause with the others. Crystal lives next door to Gilda (Phylicia Rashad), a character Perry invents as the story’s conscience and lynchpin. Gilda calls Kelly, a social worker (Kerry Washington, the Lady in Blue), when she becomes fearful for Crystal’s children’s lives.

Gilda also meddles in the affairs of her neighbor, Tangie (Thandie Newton, the Lady in Orange), a floozy who beds man after man to mask her own history of sexual abuse and psychological pain.Tangie’s younger sister, Nyla (Tessa Thompson, the Lady in Purple), lives at home with their mother, Alice (Whoopi Goldberg), a religious zealot dressed in spiritually indicated white, who can only see her own daughters as angels or devils. Alice’s father, though, “gave” her to a white man because he didn’t want granddaughters as “ugly” as Alice.

The cycle of abuse and degradation, Perry implies, begins in and ends as a family legacy. Unlike in Shange’s play, entrenched social inequities are left mostly off the hook. In fact, social systems—particularly medicine and the policy force—are represented as rather heroic in Perry’s film. The one exception is the racism and governmental negligence that are to blame for Beau Willie Brown’s inability to collect his veteran’s pay or to get help for his post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, when Kelly, the social worker, makes a home visit to the apartment he shares with Crystal to check on the kids, Beau Willie is furious that she’s worried about them and not about him, and becomes forbidding and violent enough to chase Kelly out of his apartment.

Beau Willie’s anger boils that the Veteran’s Association won’t even return his calls. But when he dangles the children out the apartment window and Perry’s camera focuses in on his hands letting go of their little wrists (mercifully not showing them fall or land on the pavement as the horrified neighbors watch below), his murderous act is depicted as the result of his inability to control himself when he’s drunk and his fury at Crystal’s refusal to marry him.

In Shange’s play, the tragic monologue ends with the chilling, agonizing words “and he dropped them,” which echoes out into the theatre like a curse you can’t take back. The story is placed nearly at the play’s end. In the film, the event takes place closer to its middle. The other women, whose lives have already been connected by Crystal’s brewing tragedy, gather around her in the hospital as she’s sedated, psychologized, and released into the good Gilda’s care. Bringing her back to life and helping her take responsibility for not leaving Beau Willie before he murdered their children becomes the women’s collective goal.

All of them, though, in some ways blame themselves instead of the constraining social order. Kelly (Washington, as smart, lovely, nuanced, and empathetic as ever) feels guilty for not removing the children from a man she knew was abusive. But she’s been preoccupied with her inability to have a child because of an STD she got from a womanizing man who interfered with her and her girlfriends by seducing and dividing them when she was young.

Even Gilda, who calls in the warning that prompts Kelly’s site visit, can’t stop the inevitable tragedy, as much as she meddles in the others’ lives. (She’s the building’s superintendent of sorts, and has all the keys—to their apartments and their psyches.) Gilda knows that Tangie’s promiscuous sexuality covers emotional wounds because, Gilda finally admits, she’s been there herself.

All of these revelations and interrelationships are pat and essentially unbelievable. But Perry makes the structure work to communicate the collective community Shange conjured on stage through the proximity of the performers’ bodies as they told their “colored” ladies’ stories. If Perry needs to put them all into a contrived, Crash-like closeness to make the play work as a film, it’s easy to forgive him, because it so elegantly makes his larger point. These women need one another, like it or not.They support, harbor, and encourage one another, finding god not just in themselves as individuals but in each other as a group of women suffering similar tragedies and triumphs.

Perry weaves Shange’s choreopoems into the women’s every day exchanges, borrowing the structure of musical theatre to literally let the monologues sing. He also sometimes integrates Shange’s poetic language into more prosaic dialogue between the women and their boyfriends, husbands, lovers, or friends. The film’s tone doesn’t quite shift for these moments so much as it intensifies, letting the language and the performers do its emotional work.

Perry brings the camera in close on their faces during the monologues, and the performers beautifully capture the pain and poetry of Shange’s words. Their acting in these moments is almost theatrical, reminiscent of monologues delivered directly the audience, as the performers did in Shange’s play. I felt like I had the best seat in the house for those filmed soliloquies. On the other hand, Perry’s habit of switching focus between the characters in the foreground and the background of the shot became distracting.

Occasionally, Perry successfully opens the monologues out to other characters in the film. For instance, the nurse, Juanita (Loretta Devine, strong and compelling as the Lady in Green), delivers the “I almost lost alla my stuff” monologue to the group of women she counsels about safe sex and relationships. They respond joyously to her declarations of independence. Watching the faces of the actors reacting to Juanita’s speech makes their collective empowerment pleasurable and infectious.

Sometimes, one of the women delivers a monologue to a character who in Shange’s script is an abstraction instead of a real man with a back story and his own dialogue. Juanita’s scenes with Frank (Richard Lawson), for instance, her unfaithful boyfriend, are staged in her small apartment, where he insists she take him back and where she finally tells him off. Frank’s dialogue—like that of the other men—is stilted and less vivid. Shange’s words, after all, were written for women, and Perry has difficulties writing appropriate rejoinders for the men he creates to people his more realistic movie world.

Anika Noni Rose is elegant and heartbreaking as the Lady in Yellow, Yasmine, the artistic, energized teacher empowering young Harlem women by teaching them to dance. Perry puts Rose in a dance studio, where she delivers monologues as though she’s rehearsing for a one-woman show, watching herself in the mirror. She wears a costume and head scarf reminiscent of the iconic design of the original Broadway production (signally captured on the 1981 Bantam Books edition of the play). Yasmine adores her girls, and her belief in the transformations of art helps them finish high school and go to college.

When Yasmine is raped in her own apartment by a man she dated just once, it’s clear that all of her talent and faith can’t keep her from the degradation of being a sexual assault victim in a system determined to prove that she deserved it. Rose’s performance of the monologue in the emergency room, where she clutches a hospital gown to her bruised collarbones and bitterly indicts such a world, is one of the few in the film that blames systemic injustice instead of individual bad luck.When Perry contrives for her rapist to be killed by the next woman he assaults, Yasmine marches into the morgue where she’s been asked to identify him as her attacker and slaps his dead face.Then, she begins to rebuild her life.

Because each subplot only receives a modicum of time (in a film that feels long at two hours), the characters don’t deepen or develop. Some feel like caricatures. Poor Whoopi Goldberg, as the evangelizing Alice, has to describe how her father called her “ugly,” which prompted hoots of laugher for some reason from the audience with which I watched. Goldberg was “ugly” in The Color Purple, too—why can’t anyone cast this woman as a character who’s as strong and radiant as she is in reality, even in her work on a talk show like The View?

Thandie Newton, playing Alice’s oldest daughter, strikes some of the film’s falsest notes, partly because her role as a man-hungry but man-hating, emotionally damaged virago is so two-dimensional. By contrast, Tessa Thompson, as Tangie’s sister, Nyla, performs a beautiful, affecting turn with her opening monologue about losing her virginity to a boy whose smile charmed her. That this boy also gets her pregnant and switches the focus of Nyla’s story is unfortunate in Perry’s adaptation. One of the few monologues that celebrate female sexuality turns too quickly into a victim narrative.

When Nyla visits an abortionist, Perry films the scene as a descent through the circles of hell, full of card sharks, drug addicts, vicious dogs, and a back-room abortionist with dirty instruments, bad teeth, and a drinking problem. In scenes like these, For Colored Girls devolves into heavy-handed melodrama, despite the actors’ effort to make more of their material.

The most egregiously caricatured relationship is between Janet Jackson’s imperious Joanna and her on-the-down-low husband, Carl (Omari Hardwick). Perry blames Joanna’s icy remoteness for her husband’s sexual desires, implying she emasculates him with her financial and emotional control. Their confrontation scene, in which he confesses that he has sex with men (but not that he’s “gay”), ends with her revelation that she’s HIV+ and contracted the virus from him.

The script emphatically links homosexuality and disease. It strongly suggests that the cost for being a too powerful woman is turning your husband gay and risking infection with the gay disease all gay men inevitably get. This is cheap, loathsome even, and the audience’s loud antipathy for every scene in which gay sex or even just same-sex male longing was represented underlined Perry’s irresponsible politics around sexuality.

For Colored Girls isn’t a particularly good movie, but it’s worth seeing because the women’s performances are terrific (especially Elise, Devine, Rose, and Washington). It’s also worth watching because it remains Shange’s feminist exhortation for women of color to find strength in themselves and to protect it fiercely.

For that reason alone, For Colored Girls is an important, necessary, significant film. It’s not just an homage to Shange and her 1970s feminism (what Alice Walker would soon come to call “womanism”), but a continuing clarion call for women to band together to end our social and sexual inequality. That’s a movie I’m happy to see and to recommend.

The Feminist Spectator

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