Christine Chambers

ArtMusic

‘for colored girls … ‘ composer martha redbone wants you to find the god within

November 25, 2019
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Call it kismet. I first met musician Martha Redbone in 2016, when we both participated in “now be here,” a gathering of over 700 women artists at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. I struck up a conversation with her after noticing her striking resemblance to playwright and poet Ntozake Shange, who was a friend to my mother, and family, and a huge influence on my life as a theater artist. We both wondered what we were doing there, and talked until we gathered for the group photo, and afterward, my newfound friend gave me a ride home.

Three years later, Redbone is now part of Ntozake Shange’s ongoing legacy in her role as composer for Leah C. Gardiner’s “for colored girls …” revival at the storied Public Theater in New York City. In the midst of a successful run that began in October, Shange’s chorepoem has now been extended a fourth time, to December 15th. I spoke to Redbone about what the play means to her and what she hoped to convey to audiences through the music.

It was foreshadowing the future when we first met — almost cosmic — as if the universe had willed it to be. ‘Zake was still alive at that time. There’s something about Brooklyn and the way that community gathers. When and how did you first encounter Ntozake Shange, and/or “for colored girls … ?”

That would have to be as a kid, when my mom came home with the big subway-sized poster from when she had gone to see it. I just remember the artwork and at the time, not even knowing what [“colored girls”] meant. When you’re 10, 11, 12 years old you never really think about that. I had been in Kentucky with my family and so I never really thought of myself as a “colored girl” until I got to New York City, and people place these labels on you. Ntozake, has a poem about that too, she has several poems about that, but in the play, Lady in Orange says, “ever since I heard there was a thing called a ‘colored girl’ — an evil woman, a bitch or a nag — I’ve been trying not to be that.” With all the negative connotations attached to the label, that she was trying her best not to be that label.

That’s right, and, “leave bitterness in somebody else’s cup.”

Exactly. So that was my very first memory of her and her work. But I was too little at that time, and I don’t think my mom thought it was age-appropriate to go and see it. So these are like “wildest dream” moments when something like this happens, to be able to score music for someone who has left such an incredible mark on our lives, I feel like Ntozake’s play is the American story for Black women. And I do say “Black women” as opposed to “women of color.” That’s a phrase that people keep using these days, but I don’t particularly feel that that’s an equal sentiment, you know?

Right.

I feel that the Black story is very different from the Brown story. Everyone has their history of how they came to be and how they’ve overcome, and triumphed, and survived but our story is very different, and our stories are still continuing today. And I do feel that the African-American story, and also the Indigenous Woman’s story, still has a serious uphill battle to fight to be seen, to be heard, to be respected, to be taken seriously. It’s tough, it’s really tough. So when I look at the writing of this genius woman, who wrote this [play] in 1976, and here it is 2019, and the stories are still the same. To hear them come out of the mouths of young women today, boy, it really hits home. This play has touched our lives in so many different ways. The cast and the creative team, we find ourselves quoting [Ntozake] in our daily lives, and it is truly remarkable and really a wonderful reminder to keep on, you know what I mean?

Why did you choose Deah Love Harriott, who is the minister of music at Bethany Baptist Church of Brooklyn, to be the music director?

I [chose] her to be the music director because I wanted to feel confident in the person who would be playing this music would play it as it was written. Meeting with Deah and talking with her, we made a connection instantly. We are sisters for life! And Deah, I know, has great respect for playing the music as written. I couldn’t have picked a better person to carry the baton. It’s just been really beautiful, her energy is wonderful, [as is] her expertise in choir direction. I feel like I have a sister for life in Deah.

Camille A. Brown’s choreographic style centers Black expressive culture, and her piece, “BLACK GIRL: A Linguistic Play” is an homage to Black girlhood, so it was really wonderful to hear you talk about having worked most closely with Camille throughout your creative process, could you talk about that?

Camille is just an absolute genius, I had the opportunity yesterday before I flew out here to Austin to catch her show “Mr. TOL E. RAncE” at The Joyce Theater, and it was absolutely incredible, she just blows me away with her genius and her ability to celebrate us. There is no doubt about who her work is for or [about] the story that she’s telling. Poetry like Ntozake’s has exactly the same feeling, where there is no doubt in your mind, about the stories that Ntozake is trying to tell. She [Shange] does it so succinctly, she goes in for the kill, she is ruthless with her words and Camille is ruthless with her choreography, so I realized as soon as I came on board as a composer, that I have to be ruthless with the music. Camille and I looked at each other and we just said, “this piece is Black girl joy, it is a celebration of who we are, everything that we are, everything that came before, and everything that is to come — and it has to feel like this.”

Yes, there is a lot of tragedy in the storytelling, but we don’t live in the tragedy, we live in how we’ve survived this tragedy. We have found a way to embrace ourselves with the acceptance of ourselves and we have found a way after all these centuries of colonization, to accept what has happened and survive and continue on and heal in spite of it. This is what I love about what Ntozake has done. She’s found a way for women to recognize this, for all women to recognize this and for us to be able to feel safe enough within ourselves and safe enough within our community of sisterhood to be able to not only to lift ourselves up but to … feel safe enough to lift each other up in this time. We also have a lot of pride, and a lot of us, we suffer alone, and in public, we put on our game face. This is how we survive. Now, we’re learning that we can have ownership of who we are, and ownership of our history, ownership of our pain, ownership of our joy. And, we can, through all those exchanges, help each other feel that we are in that safe space, so that if somebody needs to lean on us, we can be there for them, because they have been there for us. As long as we continue that cycle of healing, as they say, “we gon’ be fine!”

I agree. Healing space is so essential and so important for Black women specifically because we are seen as healers and not perceived to be in need of healing.

That’s right, and also in the music, watching Camille’s choreography, and the music that we wrote, I wanted to be able to do something that really hadn’t really been done in theater before, I wanted to find a way to make melodies that show that as black women, we are powerful, but we also can be seen as vulnerable. Vulnerable in a positive way. Vulnerable as in sensuous, and feminine, and soft. Because, in my personal experience, whenever someone refers to a Black woman they always say, “oh, they’re so strong” or “so strong and powerful” and even when it comes to sexuality it’s always kind of like, grabbing your crotch, or “come here baby!” or “the BIG MAMA!” and there’s always an edge of buffoonery, where we’re kind of a bit of a laughingstock, and where people sort of expect us to be that way. I wanted the music to be something different. I wanted us to show that we are equally as strong as we are beautiful.

You did that so beautifully! Particularly in the song that Lady in Blue (played by Sasha Allen) sings, “Lay With the Souls of Black Folks,” that includes the line from “From Okra to Greens”: “I could sleep with a man, but I’ll lay with the souls of Black folks” and the line from “Ellington Is Not a Street”: “We weren’t always missing.”

That song “Lay With the Souls of Black Folks” comes [after] “abortion cycle,” performed by Lady in Blue, and her abortion experience The words are so powerful. When it comes to being our most vulnerable, and when we really need to heal, at the very core we need to be with our own. And I really wanted it to feel like that. Sometimes, when you feel so much pain and despair to the point of desperation and exhaustion, sometimes all you want is your people around you, just listening and lifting you up. That’s why I have as the background vocals the women are just humming they’re going “Mmmmhmmm.” Sometimes you just want people to listen while you cry and pour your heart out. I really wanted it to feel that way. And Camille’s choreography is just absolutely … it was just so great to work with her, I can’t tell you. We ebbed and flowed it was fantastic, I’m thrilled with how that came out. And [actor/singer] Sasha Allen! What can you say? She just gives you goosebumps from the first note to the end. And you’re sitting there and the tears are streaming out of your eyes and you don’t even realize it.

Absolutely. I cried so many times. I went with my daughter, it was her 16th birthday, and whenever she would touch my arm that’s when I would catch myself crying. I got lost in that play … just really … so much.

From the beginning, it takes you away I mean the amount of joy, when the actors come out in the beginning and they’re doing the double dutch, it’s just fantastic, really fantastic, and when they’re stepping, it’s wonderful, really wonderful. It’s been such an honor to be a part of it. Such a “pinch me” moment. The thing that makes it bittersweet for me, is that my mom introduced me to this play but the sad thing is that my mom’s not here —she passed away seven years ago. It would have been wonderful for her to be here knowing that I am a composer for the piece. So that’s the one thing, I mean, I know that she’s with me in spirit, but I know she would love to be sitting in that chair!

I know that’s right. But you know she’s in good company right now. My mom passed away in 2002, so I feel you, I really do. So, just thinking about the last piece, “A Laying on of Hands” which is set to music to create a gorgeous musical, almost gospel, ending to the play “Lady in Red’s mantra “I found god in myself/ and I loved her/ fiercely.” What would you say to the “colored girls” of today, who may be at the end of their rainbows?

That’s exactly what I would say: “we have to find a way.” We live in an age with all this social media, and for me what’s worrying is that for young people, this is their era and I think that social media is in danger of really creating an arrested development where people will be stuck in adolescence. Social media brings kind of an exaggeration of adolescence where there’s a high school mentality — there’s crowd bullying, things going viral, people are living on a screen rather than in reality. They aren’t communicating with each other one on one. And people are depressed if their friend gets more likes or hearts than they do. And it’s like, wow, this is something that’s supposed to end in the fifth grade. And why are people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s even thinking about this, unless it’s for business purposes? I understand for commercial stuff, musicians, and artists, and things like that, it’s advertising, that makes sense. But when people are looking to social media for comfort and for love, and young people who are just at the beginning of their lives trying to figure things out are hooked on this stuff, that’s not right.

I would say my advice is Ntozake’s words “I found god in myself and I loved her fiercely” That is what we have to strive for, we cannot rely on other people to bring us happiness, I mean we know how that ends. We have to find it in ourselves.  Try to find god in yourself whatever that is, the peace, the acceptance of who you are. Try not to strive to be anyone else but your best self, because these things [like the internet,] are meant for people to compare themselves and feel less than, and it’s not being used to celebrate someone’s joy, someone’s joy [is seen as someone else’s] personal loss. I think it’s feeding the ego in a negative way, and it could be used positively.

What’s next for you?

Oh my goodness, what is not next? We have a tour, we are also developing my own play at The Public Theater. Back in 2016, we developed a theatrical concert there, which is what we‘re on tour with now, so now we are going to be doing a proper play/musical with The Public Theater so I’m really thrilled. And a new album, I really hope that that comes out this spring. That will be the plan, and as we say, “yes, dear Lord, more” — more music and more opportunities to continue telling our stories. That to me is the greatest blessing. To be a musician and work is the greatest blessing of all. I just pray that those blessings keep flowing in, that I have my health to manage all of it, and that I can keep telling our stories because that’s how we move forward.

Leah C. Gardiner’s production of “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” is showing at the Public Theater until December 15th, buy tickets to see it here.

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