When Adrienne C. Moore was in her 20s, having switched from a career in politics to one in acting, she was looking for audition monologues. She came across the monologue “graduation nite,” from Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf and felt an immediate affinity.
“So many bits of ‘graduation nite’ remind me of my own graduation night: hanging out, rolling from town to town, and drinking and partying, and all bits of things happening,” she recalled in a recent interview for American Theatre‘s Token Theatre Friends podcast. So for a while, “graduation nite” was Moore’s go-to audition monologue.
Now in her late 30s, having finished up seven seasons of “Orange Is the New Black” on Netflix, Moore has come full circle: She’s currently performing “graduation nite” every night in the Public Theater’s much-lauded revival of for colored girls…, the first New York City production of the work since 1978, when the Broadway production closed.
For this new version, just extended through Dec. 15, Shange actually worked with the cast last year, before her death. Moore recalls the following directive from the late author, who told the cast: “I wanted this to be a celebration for women of color, that we finally can say who we are, we can express our joys and our happiness and we can talk about our love, but we can also find a space to talk about our trauma. But in a way that, not for you to feel sorry for me, but just to hear me.”
Below, Moore talks to Token Theatre Friends cohost Diep Tran and Jose Solís. This interview has been condensed and edited.
JOSE SOLÍS: It took so long for this play to come back to New York. What’s it like for you to be doing this revival at this time?
ADRIENNE C. MOORE: It’s a complete honor. You know, about a year and a half ago, I did a workshop of the piece and Ntozake was present.
It was so exciting and nervous and all the feels, because I’ve known this choreopoem for many years and then to finally… I remember we were working on it for about a week, and then the final day of that workshop she comes and the second she walks into the room, all of a sudden I said, “Oh my God, there she is.”
But it’s bittersweet in a way, because it’s something that she was very adamant about wanting to see before she passed. And so it’s bitter in that she passed before she got to see it, but it’s sweet in that literally every night, I feel her spirit and her energy. Even our ancestors that are on our clothes—I have my paternal grandmother on my outfit—I feel their spirit.
But one of the things she said was, “I don’t want it to be a revival, I want it to be reimagined.” So it’s been a great honor to toss out a lot of the old ideas of this 40-year-old piece, and put new eyes on it and re-creative energy on it. I mean, what [Camille A. Brown] has done choreographically with this piece is beyond brilliant to me. So I just feel lucky every night.
DIEP TRAN: So you worked with Ntozake a little bit last year and you play the Lady in Yellow. Did she give you any insight that you take into the character?
She smiled. She was so happy. I got to meet her after the workshop and she just kept smiling and she was like, “So good, so good.” So to me, I take that as her stamp of approval. As women of color, we not only just speak with our words, but we speak with our bodies and how we talk and how we laugh and how we cry and how we tell stories—it’s all in our bodies.
I spoke to Dianne McIntyre, who was one of the original choreographers for this, and she said Ntozake was always moving. She never wanted to just stand still, she never wanted to be that poet that just stood still and recited poetry; she wanted to know how it moved in your body as well. So that is in itself a gift of freedom because, and I know we’ll probably talk more about Camille’s choreography, but one of the things that I love about how she approaches her choreography is she doesn’t plan anything. She wants to see how the body, the individual, moves, and she gives language and gestures based off of that.
DIEP TRAN: So speaking of choreography, were you a—
DIEP TRAN: Yeah.
Was I a mover, a dancer, a shimmerer?
DIEP TRAN: Do you feel like a dancer?
You know, I grew up dancing, I love dancing. I appreciate how one that is a trained dancer uses their body as a facility for language. Having said all that, I am not a dancer. I do think I have beautiful movement, but can I pirouette and do a “shanzee”—I don’t even know if that’s a ballet word.
But that’s what I love about Camille. I remember we did a workshop with her just before we started rehearsals and her first question was, “Who’s afraid of dance?” And some people timidly raised their hands. I think I did a cartwheel, like, “Me!” And so she said, “I want to make this an expression of your bodies and how your bodies move. And I’ve done my job if, by the end of this, it doesn’t look like you’re dancing but you’re moving.” I think she’s achieved that with this piece.
For example, one of the things we did in the workshop, she said to us, “Come up with five gestures.” And one time she said, “Okay, pick up five different things, make them different weights, different shapes, different sizes, whatever.” And I think one person picked up a baby and that became a gesture. So it’s interesting how dance becomes movement, becomes gestures, and how they become everyday movements that we use in our life.
JOSE SOLÍS: I’m very curious about this sense of community, because I feel like you’ve been blessed that recently both onstage and obviously on television, you’ve worked mostly with ensembles, comprised entirely of women. And I would love if you could talk a little bit about how that creates spaces where you can express yourself in a safer way and in a more open way than in co-ed ensembles.
Yes, I love being a woman. I think the future is female. But I think a lot of that is because women aren’t afraid to express their emotions. I know sometimes culturally men are not given that permission. But as women, I think we’re encouraged to emote: “How do you feel?” and so forth like that. And so walking into a show like “Orange” or walking onto an ensemble like for colored girls…, we shared a lot of who we were very early on in the process.
And just thinking about when for colored girls… was initially conceived, those women were together for over seven years, and by the end of that process, they could literally finish each other’s sentences, they knew each other that well. And so while we didn’t have over seven years to create that friendship and that bond, what we did in the process and the very beginning, we talked a lot about our own personal connections to the work, our own personal connections to the women inside these stories and what parts of their stories and their lives resonated with us. That type of transparency and authenticity and vulnerability really created a very safe place for each of us.
And so every night, I think about some of the stories that they shared, in our private space, and it’s beautiful to see them work through that or how it lands on them that night in particular.
Like I remember last night, for example, Jayme [Lawson], who plays Lady in Red, was running her lines, “I have loved you assiduously for eight years, nine months,” whatever that that bit is. And I, while she was doing that, I just started interjecting some of the, “I’m sorry,” poems, like, “Baby you know, I love you, I’m sorry”—just interjecting that while she was rehearsing her lines. And she said, “Wow, that really fed me in a different way. I’m going to think about that tonight.” And so I was like, “Oh, that’s an interesting little exercise, right in that moment.”
DIEP TRAN: How old were you when you first read for colored girls… or saw it?
I think it was in my high school years. I can’t remember if it was a school teacher or a neighbor that gave me the book, but at the time, I don’t even remember reading the whole thing through. I think I just read a few of the poems. I was in high school so I was into, like, being out, running the streets and hanging out with my girlfriends and boyfriends at the time.
And then again when I graduated from college, I wanted to see how I could pursue acting professionally. I was looking for material for auditions and monologues and so forth. And I had for colored girls… in my room and Lady in Yellow’s “graduation nite” was the monologue that kind of caught my eye. So that was what I used for the earlier part of my audition career. And then to now be in my 30s, and to inhabit Lady in Yellow every night, and to do that choreopoem every night, it’s almost as if I summoned it from way back then, from my 20s, so it’s pretty cool.
DIEP TRAN: It’s a circle.
It is a circle.
Listen or watch the entire interview below.