Naomi Maxwell was a sure fire-hire when I first auditioned her in October last year. She had this drawl to her voice – melodically southern – and a saucy smile. When she was giving attitude she would wrinkle her nose up in a look of disgust, and to top it all, she already had a silver ring in her nose – it was like she was born ready. Slipping into the Lady in Green’s role for the Cambridge Production came naturally to the writer and blogger – it almost seemed like an enviable ‘effortlessness’. Moreover, her heart wrenching poem that culminates into the play’s apex was bound to garner her a standing ovation whether she put in 100% effort or not.
But I’m a director who wants more. ‘For Colored Girls’ requires the actresses to be verbal painters. Poetry involves bringing words to life on the canvas that is your audience. You have to pop, sizzle, simmer and evoke all at the same time – and this production uses minimal props so all that ‘action’ is located in the voice.
Maxwell’s opening poem ‘No More Assistance’ is the story (or should we say letter) of a woman who is ‘endin’ this affair‘. She has been short-changed in every way possible, and is at last beginning to assert herself – and it’s about time too!
Yet, to remove ourselves from stereotypes and hashed out caricatures a ‘back story’ is always important.
Creating a back story requires you to return to the text and ask why? Within what was initially a rant, the Lady in Green declares:
‘I have left 7 packages on your doorstep, 40 poems, 2 plants and 3 hand-made notecards I left town so I could send you have been no help to me on my job/’.
It’s a line that is easily glossed over, I doubt whether people familiar with the play remember it. Yesterday it struck a chord with me and I questioned Maxwell – when did you (LiG) start writing poems?
As a poet, I know that 40 in ‘8 months, two weeks and a day‘ is a lot of poems to be writing, let alone disseminating! What does that say about the character? Not only does she remember and count the days since she’s been with her man, but she’s educated, perhaps a romantic, she has a deep attachment to words.
As we began unpicking her lines the voice of Alysia Grace Williams, a Nurse in the local downtown Hospital emerged. She was caring by nature, shy but with a quiet confidence. She’d experienced emotional neglect when she was a child and that spiralled her into negative relationships with men who used, abused and confused her. She was barren, and the fates had it that she worked on a maternity ward. She yearned to be a mother, and her lousy-ass boyfriend Tyrone (inspired by Ma Badu herself) had only gone and gotten a young girl from the block pregnant. And that’s when the penny dropped.
‘But you are of no assistance’.
The break down above might seem simplistic – it is a simplified version of approximately 8 hours of character development that started yesterday afternoon. But when Maxwell chose the name, the very consonants where a reflection of the character. Ending the poem with a note and a plant pot, we discovered that ‘No Assistance’ is neither a monologue nor a rant, it’s the very letter Alysia writes to Tyrone to tell him that ‘I am ending this affair’. As Maxwell knows only too rightly, that very declaration took a lot of courage.
Watch this space to see how we develop this poem even more and breathe life into the story. Also, make sure you get your tickets, so you can see the final product on September 13th at Canada Water Culture Space.