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Theater & Dance
What you need to know for 04/29/2017

'Colored Girls' actress makes parts of story her own

'Colored Girls' actress makes parts of story her own

When Shauntay Brandon walks out on stage these days, nerves are not a problem.
'Colored Girls' actress makes parts of story her own
Shauntay Brandon (Mark Baird photo)

When Shauntay Brandon walks out on stage these days, nerves are not a problem.

“I’m a bit more anxious than I am nervous,” said Brandon, a Schenectady native and a 2011 graduate of St. Lawrence University. “I use that anxiety to give me energy, not to scare me.”

Brandon will be one of nine women in the cast when the African American Cultural Center of the Capital Region presents Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” beginning Friday at the cultural center at 135 South Pearl St.

Karen Christina Jones is directing the production, which won an OBIE (off-Broadway) Award when it was originally produced in 1977 and was also nominated for a Tony for Best Play. The work is a series of 20 poems, all written by Shange, an American poet, playwright and self-proclaimed black feminist.

“I read about the play on my own the first time I heard about it, and then my college professor wanted us to do something by ourselves that was inspired by her story,” said Brandon.

“So what I did was take certain aspects of her story and make them my own. It really took me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to explore different parts of my personality. So I was very familiar with it when I heard they were doing it here, and I knew I wanted to audition for it.”

Easy choice

According to Jones, selecting Brandon for the cast was the easiest part of her job.

‘For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf’

WHERE: African American Cultural Center, 135 South Pearl St., Albany

WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 16

HOW MUCH: $20

MORE INFO: 227-0154 or statestreet2424@gmail.com

“She came to audition and she nailed it,” Jones said. “I had not worked with her before, but we’re Facebook friends so she came to the audition and she was fantastic. She’s only 23, so she’s young but she has a vast theatrical background.”

Brandon, however, got off to a slow start when it came to performing. It wasn’t until she was a senior at Schenectady High that she began acting, and then, only when she pursued a degree in performance art at St. Lawrence, did she totally immerse herself in her new passion.

“I did some stage and set design earlier, but I didn’t get involved in the acting part until I was a senior in high school,” said Brandon, who spent one of her semesters at St. Lawrence studying in London.

“It was always something I wanted to do, but I was afraid to take that first step. Once I did it was like having this sudden personal discovery. Going to St. Lawrence and staying involved in theater was also an eye-opening experience for me. I wasn’t afraid to give anything a try. I discovered a lot about myself through performing.”

In “For Colored Girls,” Brandon will play two different characters; an eight-year old girl and an older woman of color.

“Both my parents are outspoken people, and I’m told my grandmother was a performer,” said Brandon. “I guess that’s where I get my outspokenness from, and I think I get my personality from my grandmother. But I have this desire to share stories with people and turn them into performances.”

A favorite play

While she considers Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Women” her favorite poem, “For Colored Girls” just might be her favorite play.

“It’s definitely in my top three, at least,” she said. “I enjoy doing theater that’s about social issues, race and gender. ‘For Colored Girls’ is like our ‘Vagina Monologues.’ It’s all about getting people out of their comfort zone, and I do all this for myself. It’s great that the audience is receptive and responding to the show, but I do it more for myself than anyone else.”

Ntozake Shange was born Paulette L. Williams in New Jersey in 1948. When she was 8 her parents moved the family to St. Louis, where, as a result of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, she was bused to a white school where she was forced to deal with overt racism.

When the family moved back to New Jersey, she finished high school there and went on to Barnard College. Then, after getting her master’s in American Studies at the University of Southern California, she moved to New York City.

She had married while at Barnard but the marriage did not last, and while dealing with depression and her divorce she attempted suicide.

After recovering and working through her depression, she changed her name. Ntozake means “she who has her own things,” and Shange means “she who walks/lives with lions.”

Jones, who has a TANYS (Theater Association of New York State) Award in her resume, and has directed projects at the Classical Theater Guild, Our Own Productions and her own troupe, State Street Theater, is thrilled to be able to work with Shange’s piece.

“The playwright called it a ‘choreopoem,’ which means it’s a collection of poems strung together,” said Jones. “Some of them seem like actual scenes in a play. There’s the experience of a woman who got her heart broken on graduation night, another who just had an abortion, and other stories like that. It really is a wonderful play.”

Early inspiration

Jones remembers the night her parents went to see the play when it first came out in New York in 1976.

“I can remember my parents seeing ‘For Colored Girls,’ but I was only 8 at the time and didn’t go,” said Jones. “They brought home the program and it was such an iconic cover I was fascinated by it. It’s a precursor to plays like the ‘Vagina Monologues,’ but it’s about the different variations of experience of black women.”

For some of the performances, Jones will join the cast on stage.

“One of the actors is going to miss two Saturday nights, so I will be doing her parts,” she said. “I also did the play in college. It’s a lot of fun. Some of the actors will be sitting among the audience members, so it’s a real interactive performance with the audience.”

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or bbuell@dailygazette.com

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