It's scary what Tyler Perry can do in just two minutes. When it was announced last year that he would write and direct an adaptation of Ntozake Shange's 1975 choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, the first thought that ran through the minds of most little brown girls-turned-grown women was, "Dear God, don't let Madea strike again!" Shange's seminal work is a bible to some.
I found a decrepit copy in my mother's bedroom when I was about 9 and read it out loud to myself, not knowing what most of it meant. But I knew it was for me. It said so right on the cover. Ten years later, when I was a freshman in college, Page 52 got me through more than a few frustrated nights: "didn't nobody stop usin my tears to wash cars cuz of sorry … if you called to say yr sorry call somebody else. I don't use em anymore." The woman in yellow on the book's cover — staring intently at something we can't see — is an icon. Symbolic of every "ordinary, brown braided woman with big legs and full lips," she is the anti-Madea.
But when the official trailer to Tyler's (Madea-free) version of For Colored Girls was released last week, many of those ordinary women took notice and dared to hope. I watched the trailer several times over with my good friend Bassey Ikpi — five-time Def Poet, Twitter celeb, mother of a hilarious man-child and overall awesome lady. What follows is our real-time reaction to the trailer of the movie every black girl over 30 swore she wouldn't see.
Me: My first thought? Women of Brewster Place.
Bassey: Um, try Women of Madison Avenue.
Me: Really, you thought it was too sleek? Too Hollywood? To me it feels like Tyler cheated off of somebody else's paper.
Bassey: I was distracted by the shoes and the clothes. Is that awful? It was very "A Very Special Episode of Girlfriends." They just looked so fancy to me. My memory of the play is that it's about these women who could be everybody and anybody. Tyler giving them names strips us of that identification.
Me: Let's watch the trailer again right now and discuss our real-time reaction. Ready? Set. Go! [We both hit "play" simultaneously.]
Bassey: I'm not sure opening with Janet was a good idea. I'm sorry. This looks like Why Did Beloved Get Precious, Too? They all look so miserable. We're colored girls; are we supposed to be this miserable?
Me: Who the heck is Whoopi? It looks like she's reprising her role as Guinan from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Bassey: She's God!
Me: "Sorry" is my favorite poem — ever. I feel stingy, like I don't want anyone else reading it out loud.
Bassey: Mine, too! Don't you think it's weird hearing modern-looking people say "colored"? It keeps jumping out at me. And I hate not knowing who the colors actually are.
Me: I'm trying to guess right now. Janet's in red, but "sorry" is the lady in blue's poem.
Bassey: And do they all live in the building together? Are they all best friends? Why are they in a hospital? Why's Michael Ealy in jail? And did you ever even see Phylicia Rashad? I have questions!
Me: It looks like there's some connecting story line that gets us to the dialogue of the poems. In two minutes I'm going to figure out what it is!
Bassey: We're watching this thing like CSI agents. There is a narrative, and that's what I find a little off-putting. And by "a little" I mean terrifyingly off-putting. The story is about all women, right? Let me get my English Lit 101 together. So then the story is about "all of us." If you add some narrative, then I feel like I'm sitting back and thinking, "Oh, no, he did not cheat on Janet!" rather than, "Wow; 'sorry' hits me in the chest. It's so everything I want to say."
Me: Yes to all of that. So is making a movie just a bad move? Because a two-hour-long choreopoem would have been like a deconstructed Love Jones for Dummies.
Bassey: A choreopoem would have had me in jokes for days. No lie. It's so very 1996. I wanted it directed like a Vagina Monologues so the words would be the focus. I could be wrong. Really, I just don't want Tyler to direct it. Can I say that?
Me: Yes, you can say that. That's valid. But why? Because he's a man or because he's Tyler Perry, who some people think isn't an artiste — with an "e"?
Bassey: Because he's Tyler. I don't trust his vision as a filmmaker. What possibly could have happened between Why Did I Get Married Too? and For Colored Girls that suddenly he's a genius? I mean a "creative" genius, not a marketing genius, which obviously he is. Oh, God, Helena, I just had a horrible thought.
Me: I'm scared.
Bassey: When they re-release the book to tie in with the movie, that iconic brown girl with the yellow wrap is gone. I've never seen a For Colored Girls cover without her. I need to lie down. Let's watch it one more time. I'm still trying to figure out how these women are related. In the book, they're everybody, so there's no need to figure out bonds.
Me: OK, so we think Janet is the lady in red.
Bassey: We think Janet is wearing red. And look, Kimberly Elise is wearing brown but she's doing "lady in red" poems! Why change the colors? Why, Madea, why?! And why is Michael Ealy in jail?
Me: I got it! Tyler's using "a nite with beau willie brown" as the major plot point. Michael Ealy is playing Willie, who we all know is screwed up from Vietnam, which is now probably Iraq, and he tries to hurt his girl Kimberly Elise's kids. Janet is her sister who made good and moved downtown. She's in a suit and she's having man problems. So you know she's a lawyer or somesuch, which is why she's doing "sorry" and cain't never find no good man. Tyler hates black lady lawyers.
Bassey: You know what they should have called this? For Colored Men Who Dream of Oscars When the Madea Wasn't Enough. This is one big awards-show presentation. "You get an Oscar and you get an Oscar and you get an Oscar!"
Me: OK, final thoughts …
Bassey: After watching the trailer eight times in a row, I want to see it because none of this makes sense. It's going to be better than Tyler Perry's other movies. It's going to do really well at the box office. Everyone is going to love it. And then in about three years, everyone is going to realize that it wasn't that good. So, reluctantly, I'm going back on my own word and saying, "Yes. I will see it."
Me: So can we not touch black classics? Doesn't that limit us creatively?
Bassey: It limits us only as far as our scope. We need to change the way we do art. We can't reach everybody. So rather than trying to reach people, why not just make a good film?
Me: How happy are we that the Old Spice dude didn't make the final cut?
Bassey: We are thrilled. I want to keep liking him. And I can't do that if he's tossing babies off roofs.