Ntozake Shange created a sensation with her 1975 play, “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.” Her groundbreaking, heartbreaking celebration of African-American women was televised in 1982 and made into a feature film with an all-star cast just five years ago.
Arena Players produced its own impressive take on “for colored girls” in 1995. Now it has boldly mounted one of the playwright’s lesser-known works, “Spell #7.”
Like “for colored girls,” “Spell #7” doesn’t have a traditional plot. Instead, it’s structured around a series of Shange’s distinctive “choreopoems.” But this time the cast includes men, and the play offers a look at a place that brings its nine characters together.
That place is a New York bar – a hangout for African-American theater folk. They express their frustrations, unwind, regale each other with stories and occasionally, break into song and dance.
The bar is presided over by a bartender named Eli, who’s also a poet. Benny Pope portrays Eli as a man who takes pride in his art – and his bar.
Limited opportunities account for many of the frustrations faced by Eli’s clientele. A large minstrel face is painted on the back wall of designer Andrew Crews’ set at Arena Players. It’s an image – and a stereotype – that Eli’s patrons are eager to shed. But in this era before colorblind casting – the play debuted in 1979 – few directors or producers could see beyond the stereotype.
Eli’s waitress, Lily, is a classically trained actress, but she doesn’t fit the physical stereotype. Christian Harris leans back and launches into Lily’s lament about being unable to get work because of the limited vision of directors and producers.
Our guide through the play is a magician named Lou, nimbly played by Morgan State University student Brandan Shaw. “This is black magic you’re looking at,” the magician says. Loving being colored, as he puts it, is Spell #7.
Director and choreographer Mari Andrea Travis proves to be somewhat of a magician herself, keeping the monologs, snippets of choral speech and occasional conversations flowing swiftly. She deftly incorporates dance into the musical selections in the script, from a send-up of minstrel acts performed to Bill Haley’s “Hambone” to the exuberant steps that accompany Bob Marley’s “Is This Love.”
Most of the performers bring individualized flair to their characters, but Mackenzie Williams is a standout, whether playing a disturbed woman unable to cope with her baby, or delivering a sarcastic monolog as a white housewife flinging her hair, popping Valium and remaining “[ignorant] of the world.”
Although the theater world has become more hospitable and inclusive since Ntozake Shange wrote “Spell #7,” 36 years ago, the broader theme of racism remains sadly relevant and a discussion of immigration restrictions feels ripped from the headlines.
The original stage directions for “Spell #7” call for the use of masks at the start of the play. Director Travis eliminates this, but the set’s omnipresent painting of a grinning minstrel face summons up Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We wear the mask that grins and lies.” At Arena Players, “Spell #7” shows us the face behind the mask.