Gwen Webber-McLeod believes 2018 Auburn is the right place and the right time to stage a 1976 Broadway show.
It's no regular musical, though. The show is poet Ntozake Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf" (often stylized in all-lowercase). Shange, a black feminist whose writing would earn her a Pushcart Prize and other acclaim, first wrote the poems that would form "Rainbow" in 1974. She then paired the poetry with choreography, and coined the new style of performance a "choreopoem." "Rainbow" consists of 20 of Shange's poems delivered in that style by performers known only as "the lady in red," "the lady in orange" and so on.
The poems explore what it means to be a black woman so articulately, and with such authenticity, that Webber-McLeod will direct "Rainbow" this weekend at Auburn Public Theater despite never having directed a show before. Wednesday, Webber-McLeod said with a laugh that the theater's artistic producer, Angela Daddabbo, "literally stalked me for a few years to do it."
"The reason I decided to do it is because of my familiarity with this piece and how it personally impacted me and ... the women performing in this play," she said. "It's very personal to me because I think, very often, African-American women's stories aren't necessarily told in our own voice. A lot of people in society only learn about black women through images created by other people."
Webber-McLeod said she took many of the show's nine cast members to a production of "Rainbow" at Cayuga Community College in the late '80s or early '90s. At the time, she was director at the Booker T. Washington Community Center and they were teenagers who attended it. Since then, Webber-McLeod went on to form her own leadership development company, Gwen, Inc. She said some of her experiences in the business world have emphasized the relevance of Shange's words, such as one time Webber-McLeod was asked if she was speaking as a woman or a black person.
"Black women live and lead at the intersection of race and gender," she said. "All women need each other to survive, but only if we recognize our common ground and our points of divergence."
Still, with themes that include abuse and rape, much of "Rainbow" should resonate with all women, Webber-McLeod said. And men may identify with it not only through the women in their lives, but through Shange's look at how black womanhood affects health. Internalizing pain in the interest of being a "strong black woman" is not unlike the idea of "toxic masculinity," Webber-McLeod said.
What made "Rainbow" especially appropriate for Auburn Public Theater this year, she said, was Harriet Tubman. The abolitionist and Civil War spy, whose Auburn home will be the site of a national historical park, is "an original colored girl who may have considered suicide and found out her own rainbow was enough," Webber-McLeod said. That makes her "historically obligated" to direct it.
On a national level, she continued, the climate surrounding issues of race and womanhood has also made "Rainbow" as necessary as ever.
"For myself and other African-American women in my own circle, we're feeling as if we're living in a time where the value of black women and black people is being lessened by the philosophies of the highest leaders in our country," Webber-McLeod said. "I see us performing this play as a way for us to take a stand."
That stand may not be limited to this weekend at Auburn Public Theater: Webber-McLeod said there are already talks of more performances there and elsewhere. And she'd be happy to direct them.
"Watching nine amazing young women — mostly first-time actors — watching them embrace this material and breathe it to life and watch the transformation it's caused for them has been one of the most powerful experiences I've ever had," she said. "I'm so honored to have created a space large enough for them to have that experience."