By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
Playwright Ntozake Shange defined the joy and pain of black womanhood with For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, a collection of 20 poems delivered on a bare stage. After 35 years, Shange's incisive work is rightfully hailed as a landmark of feminist American theater.
Tyler Perry, famous for dressing in drag as the caricature Aunt Madea, thinks he can improve it. Of course he doesn't, and his adaptation's running time offers a reason why: Shortening the title to For Colored Girls is the unfortunate opposite of what Perry did with Shange's poetry.
The play is 78 minutes of emotional purging, with monologues addressing feminine issues like wayward men, motherhood, virginity, abortion and rape linked by a fiercely African-American perspective and a climactic group hug. Sparseness in staging lends extra power to the confessionals, as we're locked into whoever delivers them.
Perry's soap opera version is nearly an hour longer, padded with awkward connections since most characters now live in a walk-up apartment house, and others drop by from fancier digs. Opening up the play might work, if Perry's melodramatic intrusions contained a fraction of Shange's emotional dexterity. You can easily tell when her lovely words end and his clunky ones begin, so drastic is the difference.
It's a disservice to the play, and to a formidable group of actors justifiably proud to revive it. For Colored Girls is blessed with a Murderer's Row of black female actors, each tearing ferociously into Shange's words and gamely hanging on through Perry's.
Thandie Newton sashays and seethes as Tangie, who uses sex as a self-destructive weapon, in defiance of her sanctimonious mother, Alice (Whoopi Goldberg). Kimberly Elise is equally effective as Crystal, an abused wife and mother rejecting assistance from a social worker (Kerry Washington) with maternal problems of her own. Crystal hides her home life from a snooty boss (Janet Jackson) whose husband is on the down low.
Loretta Devine mines earthy laughs as a women's counselor who doesn't heed her own advice, and Phylicia Rashad adds common-sense gravitas as the apartment manager watching all this angst come and go. (Although the idea of her character living on the fifth floor without an elevator shows how Perry strains tying everyone together.) Macy Gray has only one scene as an abortionist, but it's a knockout.
When the "plot" pauses to allow any of these actors to embrace Shange's words, For Colored Girls becomes a cinematic anthem for all women, infinitely more honest and nobler than Sex and the City 2, or several of Perry's own estro-fests.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.