Project1Voice Honors Women with a Staged Reading of For Colored Girls…
by Chael Needle
Project1VOICE, a national organization that seeks to strengthen and promote African-American theater arts, is returning once again with its fourth-annual 1VOICE/1PLAY/1DAY, an event when, as its title implies, a diverse array of theaters and institutions will be projecting in one voice, with staged readings of the same play on the same day.
Last year, the non-profit’s signature event offered Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963, a play by Christina M. Ham about the white-supremacist Baptist church bombing that killed the titular characters, and this year, on June 16, another seminal American play will resonate across international staged readings: Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.
Project1VOICE has partnered with the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA) for a flagship production of the play at Harlem Hospital’s Mural Pavilion in New York City. Along with a staged reading with Tony-winning actresses Trazana Beverley, LaChanze, Adriane Lenox, Tonya Pinkins, and Lillias White, among others, under the direction of Seret Scott, the fundraising event will also offer a panel discussion moderated by author, journalist, and blogger Demetria Lucas and featuring author Terrie Williams (Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting), author and HIV activist Dawn Breedon, and HIV and health advocate Dr. Aletha Maybank.
Playwright Ntozake Shange, who will also attend the event and be on-hand for a VIP reception, updated her play for its twentieth-anniversary productions, in 1994, to include HIV. Now celebrating its fortieth anniversary, The Tony and Obie-winning For Colored Girls uses poetry, dance, and music to bring to life seven characters, all women, all African-American. The characters, all named after a color, explore all the complex and intertwining ways of what it means to live as a woman. The play traces the obstacles but also the paths to empowerment.
“What Shange talks about is always relevant: the pain of relationships; the desire to be loved; the value of female friendships; feeling alienated in the world and trying to find ways to be more self-aware,” notes actor/producer Erich McMillan-McCall, the founder of Project1VOICE, about how the play fits in with this year’s event theme—what it means to be female in the twenty-first century, with a focus on empowering women and girls. “It uses the voices of Black women, but it’s a universal story, a human story.”
It’s a story that preserves history, social locations, and specificity, even as it takes on new meaning in new productions. “We’re living in a world where people still do not want women to be empowered,” reminds McMillan-McCall, referring to the recent kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls by those who do not want to see young women educated.
C. Virginia Fields, CEO and President of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, agrees with him about the play’s contemporary relevance. “It still speaks today to challenging issues facing Black women that don’t get talked about and don’t get recognized in a way that we experience them.”
Notes Mrs. Fields: “HIV/AIDS is something that is still not talked about among the general population, and especially among Black women, to the extent that it should be, considering its impact. Black women have the highest rates of HIV/AIDS among all women. Over fifty percent of all new HIV/AIDS cases are among Black heterosexual women, so to have those messages is powerful in a production like this.”
Mrs. Fields is excited that the panel of experts will be on hand to help facilitate a discussion and that the event will include a health fair component. From 3 to 7 p.m., a health fair will offer free and confidential HIV testing and hepatitis C testing, as well as information about an array of issues, including dental care, eye care, and domestic violence, among others. The holistic approach to engaging communities is very much aligned with the aims of NBLCA, which engages African-American leaders and community stakeholders across the country to fight AIDS by addressing poverty, racism, homophobia, stigma and discrimination, housing, and testing and treatment access—whatever stands in the way of allowing individuals and communities to thrive.
NBLCA sees the For Colored Girls event as another innovative way to get the message out. Says Mrs. Fields: “For Colored Girls speaks to the most challenging issues that are facing women as they relate to HIV/AIDS and other health disparities and the disproportionate impact that it has on women of color.”
Regarding the collaboration with NBLCA, McMillan-McCall says: “There was lots of talk this year about Affordable Health Care. What was left out of the conversation: once you get everyone to drink from this well, this wonderful Affordable Health Care water, what’s next?” That is, access will mean little without empowered individuals who seek to stay on top of their mental and physical health.
While the New York City event is taking place, over thirty Black theaters and diverse institutions around the world will be celebrating Shange’s rainbow of women in various ways. There will be other staged readings, of course, but also book club discussions of the work—in-person or via social media; in homes or public forums— starting on June 13 and ending on June 16. HUE MAN, an on-line bookstore, is the project’s exclusive retailer and will offer discounts on the purchase of the play.
Project1VOICE will also encourage different types of expression with voter registration drives, creative writing and mentoring programs, and visual arts programs all focused on the woman-centric theme. McMillan-McCall hopes, too, that 1VOICE/1PLAY/1DAY will help return For Colored Girls to the best-seller lists and make this “anthem for all women,” as he calls it, trend on Twitter and other social media sites.
McMillan-McCall is thrilled to be able to share For Colored Girls in as many venues as possible. He marvels at the play’s ability to connect women, and remarks on how it has become a touchstone for multiple generations of actresses, even those who are not African-American. Its impact on audiences is undeniable, and its impact on the history of theater and its ability to represent the needs, desires, and hopes of African-American women during a time when their voices were often sidelined by both the civil rights and white-led women’s lib movements is perhaps immeasurable.
The legacy of African-American theater, and its power to enlighten and entertain communities, is the heart of Project1VOICE. McMillan-McCall created the non-profit during the economic down-turn of 2008–2009, when he noticed African-American theaters and other minority-based arts institutions were closing their doors, most likely for good. “We were losing the places we would call ‘home.’ Places to nurture our stories. [I asked myself:] ‘How can we keep the narrative alive, but using a twenty-first century paradigm? How do we connect with a younger generation, to make young people understand the importance of our narrative of survival?’”
The stakes are vital, says McMillan-McCall. “History moves us forward.”
For information about 1VOICE/1PLAY/1DAY on June 16 and all of the events leading up to June 27, National HIV Testing Awareness Day, log on to www.project1VOICE.org. For more information about the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, log on to: www.nblca.org.
Chael Needle wrote about Africa Goal in this issue.