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'For Colored Girls': Tyler Perry does admirable job in adapting legendary play

It's dated, theatrical and over-the-top. In the 35 years since the play's premiere, it still doesn't cut black men a lot of slack.

But Tyler Perry's film adaptation of Ntozake Shange's legendary For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf bristles with passion, poetry and ambition. And if his For Colored Girls doesn't overcome the play's staginess or Perry's own limitations as a dramatist, it's not because he doesn't give it his best shot, and his best cast -- from Thandie Newton and Whoopi Goldberg to Anika Noni Rose, Loretta Devine and Kerry Washington. He doesn't embarrass them, himself or the play.

Perry reset this "choreopoem" -- seven archetypal women, dancers, delivering monologues -- in an inner-city apartment building, setting up a community of relatives, neighbors, acquaintances and employees. The high-powered magazine publisher Jo (Janet Jackson, looking years and pounds younger than in her recent Perry films) lives uptown, where she suspects her man of cheating. Her employee, Crystal (Kimberly Elise, in a moving performance) is stuck in a dingy walk-up and an abusive relationship (Michael Ealy).

Phylicia Rashad plays the nosy landlady, whose "I used to be you" is a favorite bit of advice that few of her tenants heed. There's sexually assertive bombshell barmaid Tangie (Newton, ferocious), who uses men and insultingly kicks them out the door in the morning. Juanita (Devine at her earthiest) is a nurse, struggling to teach neighborhood women safe sex and what not to put up with in relationships, even though she's putty in the hands of her two-timing man.

Tangie's naive younger sister Nyla (Tessa Thompson) is just now coming into her own, sexually. And their cult-following mom (Goldberg, plainly out of practice as an actress) is no help, keeping the sisters apart, judging Tangie for her promiscuity. Nyla takes dance lessons from a great role model, Yasmine (Rose of Dreamgirls), a proud woman who keeps her distance from men but conveys a sexy, self-assured gentility. And Kelly (Washington, wonderfully wounded) is the social worker who stumbles into some of these lives, mainly due to Crystal's unraveling home life.

It's a movie built on verbal flourishes, playwright Shange's purple turns of phrase. Juanita doesn't just confront her man (Richard Lawson). She lights him up -- lyrically.

That high-minded language, delivered with "This is my close-up" bravado by the various players, can't help but provoke eye-rolling on occasion. Perry's additions to the script are more matter-of-fact than florid (he had to provide the plot), and he can't quite commit to making this a more artful take on the play.

But Perry's great gift to this unfilmable play is getting it on the screen, his sharp eye for casting, and his evident affection and sympathy for black womanhood, even in movies in which he doesn't don a dress.

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