Poet, novelist returns to stage; Ntozake Shange premieres ‘Lavender Lizards’

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THEATER PREVIEW

“Lavender Lizards & Lilac Landmines: Layla’s Dream.”

8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 31. $18-$25. 14th Street Playhouse. 173 14th St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-876-6346, http://www.jomandi.com.

Ntozake Shange’s bracing “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” debuted on Broadway in September 1976. It hit with the force of a brigade of black female guerrillas storming the Great White Way.

The show, which merged poetry, drama, music and dance, was unprecedented for the way it openly grappled with race, gender and sexuality from a black woman’s perspective. Now, nearly 30 years later, Shange returns to the stage with “Lavender Lizards & Lilac Landmines: Layla’s Dream” — an equally experimental work addressing many of the same issues and premiering this week at the New Jomandi.

“This is the work that anybody who knows Ntozake Shange has been waiting for since ‘For Colored Girls,’ ” says Mikell Pinkney, the director of “Lavender Lizards.” “It’s like the totality of all the things that she’s done before.”

The setting is the dream world of a black woman named Layla. She’s troubled by her relationship with a dismissive, condescending man named Yves. Because of this, her dreams are visited by several apparitions, including an elderly white slave master, a Latino magician and a future version of herself.

“You can’t describe it in the context of any traditional form,” Pinkney says. “It’s more than a musical. It’s more than drama. It’s more than dance. It’s such a fusion of all of those things. The poetry, the heightened language, is what stands out. But it’s indescribable. This is definitely something new.”

The world premiere of “Lavender Lizards” represents a very public moment in the career of Shange, who has long danced in and out of the spotlight. After the success of “For Colored Girls,” Shange was the target of biting criticism by those who felt the show derided black men.

But instead of becoming angry and embittered by these attacks, Shange refocused on her creative process, establishing herself across genres. She’s published several books of poetry as well as the critically praised novels “Betsey Brown” and “Liliane.” In 1995, she directed a revival of “For Colored Girls” at New York’s New Federal Theater.

Reflecting on the artistic climate that helped produce her seminal work, Shange grows a little depressed about how much things have changed. “Politically, it wasn’t so dreary,” says Shange, who teaches at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where she developed “Lavender Lizards.” (The New Jomandi staging features a Florida cast.) “There was a slew of young black female writers. The world was just bustling with black art, and I was a part of that. Now I feel much more alone, which makes me sad.”

Nevertheless, Shange’s work has helped birth a new wave of intensely personal black art, which has taken form in the spoken-word movement. ” ‘For Colored Girls,’ ” Pinkney says, “opened up that whole notion of spoken word — that poetry could be given theatrical legitimacy. Ntozake has a very special genius. She has this ability to turn all of these things — the humor, the pathos, the sadness, the destructiveness of life — into beautiful poetic language.”

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