Rainbows for the city

Dancer-choreographer and Detroit native Aku Kadogo is focused. She watches her cast, the rhythms and inflections. It’s Friday night and this group, talented as it is, tends to bring a nervous energy to rehearsals on Fridays. Kadogo’s clarity, which is especially important on nights like this, is reflected in her gaze.

“Aku” is from the Ewe language of Ghana, and it means “Wednesday born.” Kadogo, in Swahili, means “small beautiful one.” Standing maybe 5-foot-5 with brown dreadlocks, she knows what to look for in movement. She’s known for years how to direct and produce. She put that knowledge to use as an assistant choreographer at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. She’s lived there for 23 years as a respected member of the arts community, writing, choreographing and directing her own productions. She was also an assistant choreographer for the Broadway production of Rent.

Tonight, however, Aku Kadogo, formerly Karen Vest, is home.

The Cass Tech graduate works in a sterile rehearsal room in the renovated section of Old Main, on Wayne State’s campus. Her energy is Motown cool, and she shares it with this small cast. The group balances fun and focus. It has to. These young, beautiful, colorful women have the responsibility of breathing new life into the lungs of one of Kadogo’s personal jewels: for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf was poet-playwright Ntozake Shange’s seminal work, and Kadogo was an original cast member. She helped take the play to Broadway. She created the character Woman In Yellow. And now, she is directing the poetic drama for Wayne State University’s Black Theater Department.

“C’mere, Ms. Cassie, honey,” says Kadogo, summoning Cassie Williams, the one who acts better than she dances, but does a good job of acting like a dancer. “Because you’re the shortest one in the cast, I don’t want you to get behind anyone. I don’t wanna lose you.”

Had Shange remained lost, allowed thoughts of suicide to become action, we might never have received her gift, for colored girls, which was originally a poetry book. Had she remained lost, Kadogo might not have met her in New York. They might never have developed the play, whose full complement of dance and performance poetry deals with the enviable spirit of sister-girl-friendship. It projects the issues of women of color onto a society that too often has hushed them. Audiences — whether they like it or not — become canvases on which matters of the heart are painted.

By 1973, the cast of for colored girls had a vehicle to drive its voice. Along the way, it punched theater in the face.

Kadogo has lived away from Detroit for 29 years. She visits frequently, but this stay — from last October until next month — is her longest in a while. She’s gotten a chance to take a good look at what has become of home. And she discusses it as only a woman with Motown cool can.

“I remember Detroit one way when I was a child,” she says, “and I think in the years I watched blight take over, I was more angry. And, so, I disliked the place, and was always ready to get out of town. My brother and I always affectionately say Detroit is a Third World country. … All you’ve gotta do is drive two minutes from here. One night, I was driving down 14th. And there were no lights! I said, ‘This is Third World!’ And when you say something is Third World, you’re saying it’s political. One night, you have lights. One night, you don’t.”

Yet, she adds, the city is “rich inside the people.”

Kadogo’s frank tongue is born of a generation of truth-tellers: Sonia Sanchez — Nikki Giovanni — Gil Scott-Heron — folks with spirits bigger than their bodies, big enough to speak all truths, whether easy or uncomfortable. In this spirit, the poetry and dance of for colored girls gives rhythm and fluidity to romance, sacrifice, freedom, rape, abortion, betrayal and reconciliation.

“Women relinquish all personal rights in the presence of a man,” says actor Cora Ivey while rehearsing a scene. Her eyes are limpid and set; she casts them over her shoulder to punctuate the shame of such an existence. Kadogo is working with ladies who are two, maybe three generations removed from the original play. But the issues are not bound by time and the connection, the energy, between Kadogo and the cast is obvious.

This nurturing environment must be similar to the creative energy Kadogo shared with Shange. “When I met Ntozake, it was Ntozake, Paula [Moss], myself and a woman called Kirstin. And I was actually working as a dancer with Ntozake. So we did a lot of improvisation. We would go to bars. Ntozake would read, and we would dance. And the musicians would join in and play with us. So I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the music scene and being in the music scene. The loft scene was coming. The Art Ensemble of Chicago was there. David Murray had just come to town. There was so much going on.”

The play lasted nine or 10 months off-Broadway, in smaller, more intimate venues, then went to the New Federal Theater. Critics at once lauded and lambasted it. Some praised the play for championing feminism. Other criticized it as an exercise in man-bashing. A discussion about for colored girls on the “Phil Donahue Show” almost led to fisticuffs between members of the studio audience who held these opposing views.

And though the content still stirred controversy, the energy was somewhat different than in the off-Broadway presentations. On Broadway the audience was removed, placed in front of the women, instead of around them. Fortunately, the lack of intimacy did not alter the intensity or integrity of for colored girls.

And Kadogo acknowledges that working with Ntozake Shange was pivotal to her development:

“I do owe her. Ntozake wrote a work based on things that had happened in her life. And she also coined a phrase called a ‘choreopoem.’ And it gave us a texture to move into. In the dance world, people say what line they come from. Like, I’m from the Katherine Dunham line. So, in the same way that I’m in a Dunham family in dance, I’m definitely in the Ntozake Shange world when I write, and when I do my own performance work.”

Part of Kadogo’s own performance work includes “Rhythm science,” a form of dance she created in Sydney. It emphasizes the breaks in different forms of music, and makes the argument that, whether James Brown or Fela Kuti, the breaks are usually similar. Kadogo uses Rhythm science to help the cast, most of whom are not trained dancers, gain a better feel for movement and rhythm. “These women don’t think they’re dancers,” she says, “but we come from a dancing culture.”

After her work here is finished, she will head to Europe to work on another project. Then she returns to Australia. But she’ll leave the rainbow at home — this home.

for colored girls who have considered suicide/
when the rainbow is enuf

by Ntozake Shange
Friday-Sunday, Jan. 25-Feb. 3
Bonstelle Theater
3424 Woodward Ave., Detroit
Call 313-577-2960.

Khary Kimani Turner writes about words and performance for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]otimes.com