Nonverbal Theatrical Elements in Ntozake Shange's for Colored Girls ... and Intissar Abdel-Fatah's Makhadet El-Kohl (the Kohl Pillow)

Article excerpt

There is language in her eyes, her cheek, her lip My her foot speaks; her wanton spirits look out At every joint and motive of her body ...

--Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida

Your face ... is a book where men May read strange matters.

--Shakespeare, Macbeth

Thou shalt not sigh, nor bold thy stumps to heaven / Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a sign But I, of these, will wrest an alphabet, And by still practice learn to know thy meaning.

--Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus

In Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche expresses his views about the act of speaking and confirms, "that for which we find words, is something already dead in the hearts; there is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking." (1) Despite Nietzsche's views, "the act of speaking" remains the fundamental communicative element among humans. Although all species communicate, the human version is notable for its precision, flexibility, and versatility, consequences of the uniquely human ability to use language. Still, language is neither a monolithic construct--nor an obvious mechanism of communication. Viewed from a scientific perspective, language is not even reality but merely a representation of reality--an abstraction. Theorists such as John Condon emphasize that the "word is not the thing" in the same way that "a map is not the territory." (2) Words, then, represent reality in the same sense that maps are representations of territory but not the territory itself. And since words cannot encompass the entire meaning of what is meant to be represented, the understanding of nonverbal communication is essential.

Through all the fluctuations of human fortune and endeavor, a distinguishing characteristic of human existence is the desire and ability to communicate. While the purpose of any communication may be to achieve shared meaning, its symbolic nature makes this difficult to accomplish. Not only is language symbolic, but it is also a process in constant flux; as such, it is an aspect of culture, common to all human societies. Colin Cherry eloquently asserts that language has been compared to "the shifting surface of the sea; the sparkle of the waves like flashes of light on points of history". (3) While a child's babbling serves biological functions by exercising the speech organs, that babbling cannot strictly be called language. As the arbitrary symbolic function of words seeps into the child's awareness and vocal sounds begin to acquire value, the child's mental activity undergoes adjustment and becomes increasingly integrated into the social community.

Even if speech becomes our most important mode of communication, it is not our only means of expression. One estimate claims that more than 60 percent of the social meaning in interpersonal interchange is transmitted nonverbally. (4) In fact, communication usually employs verbal and nonverbal language interactively, each using different lexicons and codes. The case of Helen Keller provides a challenging example of a child who was struck deaf and blind at eighteen months old before she had even developed speech habits or the abstract concepts of an adult. After years of struggle--and largely through the patience of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, who taught her to make sounds of speech--Helen was able to develop a universal concept of "words." In The Story of My Life, she describes the thrill of this new discovery:" I did nothing but explore with my hands and learn the name of every object that I touched; and the more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world." (5) This "sense of kinship" with the world is generally achieved through a marriage of words and the use of other, nonverbal cues that, in unison, form a comprehensive, effective means of communication. Nonverbal communicative elements--signs, gestures, and behavioral cues--are all personal abstractions of reality. …