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Ntozake Shange is an influential African American playwright, poet, and novelist who created a new theatrical form that she named the “choreopoem”: a merging of poetry, prose, song, dance, and music that grew out of her experiences as an African American woman. In the years since her first choreopoem, the award-winning For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1978), was produced in New York, Shange has contributed her writing, directing, performing, and teaching talents to theaters and universities around the country, and she has created a distinguished and substantial body of dramatic work.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Young Life of Adversity and Inspiration
Shange was born Paulette Williams on October 18, 1948, in Trenton, New Jersey, to surgeon Paul T. Williams (for whom she was named) and Eloise Williams, a psychiatric social worker and educator. Shange, the oldest of four children, had a middle-class upbringing that was marked by educational opportunities and important cultural influences. Her family’s affluence did not shield her from experiencing racism as a child, however. When Shange was eight years old, her family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where they lived for five years. Although St. Louis offered Shange the things that she liked best, such as opera, music, dance, literature, and art, she experienced much disappointment as she struggled against rejection and abuse in the then-segregated city. Until the landmark 1954 Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka court decision, Shange and other African American children attended different schools than white students. That ruling desegregated schools, and instituted programs to bus African American students to formerly all-white schools. As a result, the eight-year-old Shange was transferred to a German American school where blatant racism abounded. There, Shange was forced to struggle with bigotry at a young age, including a teacher’s denouncement of the work of influential African American poets Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
Shange adjusted and even formed tenacious bonds to St. Louis. She also had a rich intellectual and family life to fall back on. Always an avid reader, Shange’s earliest favorite authors were Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean Genet, as well as Harlem Renaissance writers including Hughes and Countee Cullen. In addition to her exposure to literary giants, Shange also came in contact with the thriving African American cultural community. She met musicians and singers like Dizzy Gillespie, Chuck Berry, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Josephine Baker, all of whom were friends of her parents. W. E. B. DuBois was also a family visitor.
After five years in St. Louis, the family returned to New Jersey, where Shange completed high school and went on to attend Barnard College, graduating with honors and a bachelor’s degree in American studies in 1970. She enrolled at the University of Southern California in
Los Angeles and was awarded a master’s degree in American studies in 1973. Despite her academic success, these years were marked by depression, a failed first marriage, and several suicide attempts that were partly a result of her struggle with feelings of rage against a society that devalued women and people of color.
Finding Strength and Solidarity on Stage
An important turning point in her life came in 1971, when she changed her name from Paulette Williams to Ntozake Shange (pronounced en-toh-ZAHK-kay SHONG-gay). Adopted from the Xhosa language, the name demonstrates a commitment to her African heritage and her resolution to build for herself a new and stronger identity: Ntozake means ”she who comes with her own things” and Shange means ”one who walks like a lion.” Shange’s name change was a way ofredefining herselfapart from the European and patriarchal cultures that she felt were oppressing her. After her name change, Shange moved to the San Francisco Bay area to seek out other women with whom she could share her experiences and her artistic vision. During this time, the Black Arts movement was gaining momentum and impacting American culture. The movement was an offshoot of the civil rights and Black Power movements, and emphasized an embracing of African cultural heritage.
Shange taught humanities, women’s studies, and ethnic studies at several colleges from 1972 to 1975. She pursued the study of women’s mythology, women’s literature, and women’s language. She danced and recited poetry in several African American dance companies, and was inspired to start her own company called For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide. In the summer of 1974, Shange began to work on a series of seven poems to give voice to seven nameless women whose stories would represent a range of emotions and experiences. These poems eventually become Shange’s first and best-known choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1975). Shange transformed the poetry collage into a theatrical work that was performed at various venues in California before she and choreographer Paula Moss moved to New York and produced the show in an off-Broadway theater in Julyof1975. The work continued to transform as it moved to Broadway in 1976, where it played for two years. After the Broadway show closed, touring companies took the production around the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean. Shange’s choreopoem had a total of 867 New York performances, 747 of which were on Broadway.
Stories of Living and Surviving
In For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, seven women designated only by the colors (brown, yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, and green) take turns telling stories that reveal the pain and complexity of ”bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored.” In their stories, the women communicate the pain of living along with the triumph of surviving. Shange earned several awards for For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, including an Obie Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award for drama, an Audelco Award, and the Mademoiselle Award. The work also received Tony, Grammy, and Emmy nominations. Although the play enjoyed critical and commercial success, some unfavorable reviews questioned Shange’s technique, noting the lack of traditional character development and linear plot structure. Many critics also challenged Shange’s negative depiction of black men and relationships in the play. Shange has depicted many varieties of male and female characters and relationships in subsequent works.
Shange was uncomfortable with the public sensation created by the show, and resisted the fame it brought her. She continued to pursue her writing career and married for a second time, to musician David Murray in 1977. The couple had a daughter, Savannah, but the marriage was later dissolved. In the wake of the success of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, Shange published poetry and fiction while continuing to write pieces for the theater. In 1976, she published Sassafrass: A Novella, followed by a volume of poetry titled nappy edges in 1978. Sassafrass was expanded and republished in 1982 as Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo: A Novel. Shange also became an outspoken black feminist, appearing in newspapers and magazines that included The Detroit Free Press, Black American Literature Forum, and Ms.
Decades of Creative and Challenging Work
Throughout the 1980s, Shange produced a wide range of work. Her 1980 adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage and Her Children (1941) earned Shange a second Obie Award. She set her version in post-Civil
War America, recasting Mother Courage as an emancipated slave. In 1981, she published the poetry collection Three Pieces and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for poetry. In 1985, Shange published her second novel, Betsey Brown, a coming-of-age tale that is her most traditional text.
In the past two decades, Shange has applied her enormous imagination and energy to the production of works in every major genre, including children’s literature. Whitewash (1997) tells the story of a young girl, Helene-Angel, who is assaulted with white paint by a group of boys. The story is based on two separate real-life incidents in which children in New York City were accosted by gang members and spray-painted white. Her other children’s books include Daddy Says (2003) and Ellington Was Not a Street (2004). In 1994, she published her third novel Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter, that was later adapted for the stage.
She explored yet another genre with her 1998 cookbook, If I Can Cook/You Know God Can. The volume is filled with recipes she collected from black cultures of North and South America and the Caribbean, blended with a discussion of history, literature, vernacular, culture, and philosophy. Her effort to convey to readers the connections among the varied cultures that make up the African Diaspora is rooted in the same impulse that led her to combine diverse artistic media in most, if not all, of her works. Her creative efforts continued to earn her national recognition: she was the recipient of the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers Award from 1992 to 1995, and held the Heavyweight Poetry Champion of the World title, awarded at the Taos Poetry Circus poetry festival, from 1991 to 1993.
From the beginning of her writing career, Shange has determined her artistic course by reflecting on her experience as a black woman in America. Although For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf remains her most successful and most often revived work, Shange has proved to be a prolific and versatile writer. Her work defies generic categorization; her proven ability to traverse the boundaries of poetry, playwriting, dance, and music is her greatest legacy. Her theatrical experimentation has enlarged the American dramatic canon and has encouraged other writers to take up their places in a theatrical tradition enriched and expanded by the perspectives that Shange has spent her career exploring.
Works in Literary Context
A New Theatrical Paradigm With For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Shange created a new type of theatrical form, the choreopoem, which combined poetry, drama, dance, and improvisation. Shange deliberately created the choreopoem to break away from Western theatrical traditions, including naturalism and linear plot structures. Shange’s innovations can be regarded in the larger category of experimental theater, but it differs from many products of experimental theater in that it is a deliberate attempt to create a form to capture the distinctive voice and experiences of women of color.
Works in Critical Context
Shange’s works present a contradiction to critics. She set out to be something other than a playwright, denying her connection to that term and the limitations that a European dramatic tradition imposes on those who choose to work in it. Yet, many critics insist on evaluating her work according to that tradition and have consequently found her work lacking in dramatic form. Despite that criticism, Shange has remained true to her vision of what black theater is and has concentrated on creating her own unique dramatic form. As a result, the critical consensus is that Shange has expanded the definition of American drama. As critic Barbara Frey concludes, ”These linguistic and generic innovations of Shange, then, resist the ‘anxiety of influence’ of white/male and even black/male literary texts, enabling her to write of black women’s experiences freshly and empathetically.”
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf Shange’s choreopoem is powerful and provocative in many respects and has been highly praised by numerous critics, yet it shows weaknesses in terms of depth of content and character development. The critical divide is as much about Shange’s vision and articulation of what theater, especially black theater, should do. Shange replaces the emphasis on individuated, realistic characters of Western drama with a more fluid design in keeping with the dance, music, and poetry of the piece. Critic Neal Lester sums up much critical analysis about the unconventional nature of the play, arguing that, with ”minimal attention to traditional plot development, Shange focuses instead on the discussions, attitudes, and behaviors of these black individuals, particularly as they recognize and acknowledge their sexuality as essential parts of their identities.”
Liliane: A Resurrection of the Daughter
Shange’s third novel is a portrait of an African American artist who explores her cultural and sexual identity. The novel combines traditional narrative with multiple points of view, as well as dialogue between the title character and her therapist. Critics have praised Shange for her structural and literary innovations in the novel to discuss complex social, historical, and personal influences on relationships and identity. Critic Deirdre Nelson writes, ”Not a polemic, the novel nevertheless is political as well as poetic: Liliane joyfully celebrates the complexity of sexual relationships, the dynamics of family and friendship, and the emerging multicultural ethos that is America.”
- Geis, Deborah R. ”Distraught Laughter: Monologue in Ntozake Shange’s Theater Pieces.” Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
- Lester, Neal A. Ntozake Shange: A Critical Study of the Plays. New York and London: Garland, 1995.
- Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983.
- Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. ”Black Women Playwrights: Exorcising Myths.” PHYLON 48 (Fall 1987): 229-239.
- Waxman, Barbara Frey. ”Dancing Out of Form, Dancing into Self: Genre and Metaphor in Marshall, Shange, and Walker.” MELUS 19 (Fall 1994): 91-106.
- Gillespie, Marcia Ann. ”Ntozake Shange Talks with Marcia Ann Gillespie.” Essence (May 1985): 122-123.
- Neilen, Deirdre. ”A Review of Liliane.” World Literature Review Today 69 (1995): 584.
- Stevens, Andrea. ”For Colored Girls May Be for the Ages.” New York Times (September 3, 1995): H5.
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