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Poetry in motion; Ujima players do justice to Shange's stirring play

The first thing you'll notice is the wall.

The tall, curved, stark white wall. The details of its construction might first nag at you. But its clarity will hold your attention. The cleanliness of it, the boldness, the way it glows in the pools of rich color that flood it throughout the evening -- it is all striking for this space at TheaterLoft, and for this company, Ujima. It is an announcement of, and vessel for, something special.

Ntozake Shange's 1975 play, "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf," is the genesis of that special something. It is 90 continuous minutes of poetry and movement, performed by seven women; it is more precisely called a "choreopoem." The women's circumstances, locations and relations fluctuate. They are named for colors of the rainbow. We know little else about them.

They are here to reclaim themselves from the depths of disrespect they have faced. With us, they reconcile their bitterness, struggle, pain and tears, and announce -- to themselves -- their survival. It is the sharing that frees them. It is our witness that validates them.

Shange strives only for impressions. Just as we are led to a key detail in one color's narrative, another color whispers us to the next space. It is the rhythm of beat poetry with the soul of jazz. Deep breaths are loud, negative space is vocal.

This is a mark of Shange's evocative writing, certainly. But it is also thanks to these exceptional actors, led fearlessly, no doubt, by director Lorna C. Hill. She and choreographer Hilda Ramos have obviously worked on space. Where less confident directors might have thought to block and mark this show to the comma, here we see something rarely visible on stage: trust.

This asset cannot be understated. It is a palpable and novel addition to this production.

Each actor has her moment of resonance, some more often than others. All are natural, but some are more precise. Some are louder, some are softer. Some are bigger, some are smaller. Some slap your cheek, and some echo in your subconscious. The more comparisons you make, and the deeper you go hunting for pluses and minuses, the less satisfied you'll be. They are all superb in their own right. Tighten or tweak one, and the rainbow crashes to sea.

Aitina Fareed Cooke, as the Lady in Brown, is our provocateur. Her rhetorical delivery is the perfect check-in. We catch her even when she is not talking. Cooke is also the most nimble, which is noteworthy only in how capably she brings to life her little girls and frustrated teens. Her space is about age.

Dayatra Hassan, as the Lady in Purple, is equally evocative and provocative. It's exciting watching Hassan, anticipating how she's going to utilize her tears and anger. Her space is about vulnerability.

Saron Ephraim, as the Lady in Blue, is strongest the second time she comes around. She brings a fierceness we don't see in her introduction, an example of her dexterity. You don't expect the heated rage she brings when her wretched medical tale comes. Her space is about anger.

Shantinna Moore, as the Lady in Red, is simply marvelous. Moore utilizes all the gold-plated tools of exceptional acting, over and over. In the visceral climax of the program's most harrowing chapter, about a crucial interaction between a mother and her children's repulsive father, Moore is nothing short of a phoenix. Her space is about intensity; she is the backbone of an already durable ensemble.

Zoe Viola Scruggs, Kunjane Lyons-Latimer and India T. Moss wonderfully fill out this ensemble with their own renderings of humor and grief. No small beans.

But let it be known, that while the play's best performances occupy that stage, hands down, the real characters are in the seats. For it is here where we can hear the echoes, not just in the sweet acoustical spots beneath that defiant wall, but in the moments of clarity and discovery that are heard in the proverbial chorus of "Mmm hmm."
This is a space about freedom.


"for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf"

4 stars (out of 4)

WHEN: Through March 11

WHERE: 545 Elmwood Ave.

TICKETS: $15-$25