Authors: Ntozake Shange

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American playwright, novelist, and poet

October 18, 1948

Trenton, New Jersey

Biography

The works of poet, playwright, and novelist Ntozake Shange are an essential part of modern African American literature. Her first successful work, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, is poetry brought to the stage and expressed through dance and music. This work was Shange’s initial step toward a prolific and innovative literary career.

Ntozake Shange.

By Barnard College, CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Shange’s intellectual and cultural environment as a child affected her artistic development. She was born Paulette Williams, the daughter of Paul T. Williams, a surgeon, and Eloise Williams, a psychiatric social worker and educator. An eclectic combination of popular music and various types of literature shaped her artistic development. In a self-interview in her poetry Nappy Edges Shange said that her mother read to her from such diverse writers as the Scottish poet William Dunbar, William Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, and the American poet Countée Cullen. Her musical sense was influenced by Dizzy Gillespie, Chuck Berry, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Josephine Baker, who were frequent guests at her parents’ home.

Although the combination of diverse literary and musical influences nourished her literary aspirations, Shange felt oppressed by society because of her race and gender. While she was an undergraduate, she attempted suicide and struggled with the reality of life as a black and a woman. She attempted to resolve her feelings of oppression by changing her name while working toward her master’s degree at the University of Southern California. She changed her name to Ntozake Shange, Zulu words for “she who comes with her own things” and “she who walks like a lion.” By changing her name, Shange replaced a name that had nothing to do with her sense of her own reality (Paulette is derived from a man’s name, Paul, and Williams is an Anglo-Saxon name) with a name that clarified her identity as a black woman.

Shange’s creative goals became clearer and more productive during her teaching years. She taught humanities, women’s studies, and African American studies at Sonoma State College, the all-woman Mills College, and at University of California extension classes between 1972 and 1975. During this period she created interdisciplinary and improvisational works performed in bars from San Francisco to New York. These were poetry readings accompanied by dance and music. Shange strives to create a sense of movement in her poetry, and music and dance are the elements by which she attempts to bring the written word to life.

After moving to New York in 1975, Shange’s creative integration of music, dance, and poetry moved from the bar to the stage. Seven women dressed as the colors of the rainbow enacted Shange’s poetry in what she calls a choreopoem: for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. The New York Times praised Shange’s effort, noting that it was “a play to be seen, savored, and treasured.” Official recognition is evidenced by its many subsequent productions in the United States, England, Brazil, and the West Indies, and Shange was awarded the Obie Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, and the Mademoiselle Award. for colored girls was adapted into a film in 2010.

Shange’s success with poetry and play-forms led her to experiment with other genres of literature. In a prose piece entitled Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo she explores the aspirations, beliefs, and personal turmoil of three black girls from Charleston, South Carolina, and follows their dreams to different American cities. Shange’s continual stress on the importance of the black female voice is evident in her poetry in Nappy Edges. She discusses the responsibility of the black poet in “things i wd say,” of black heritage, and of the subjugation of women by men. In See No Evil Shange explains her creative and political voice. Shange’s travels to the Caribbean, South and Central America, and the South Pacific exposed her to different theater communities. In her collection of poems A Daughter’s Geography Shange poetically describes her travels “from the indigo moods of Harlem streets to the sun-drenched colors of the Caribbean,” and she emphasizes her belief in the power of women to improve and revolutionize societies.

Shange has experimented with language and form in her works. Ridin’ the Moon in Texas is a book of “word paintings.” Her poetry is combined with visual aids such as photographs and paintings by other artists. The subject of the black woman and the style of implementing and combining different art forms are characteristic of Shange’s work. Shange celebrates the black woman in poetry, novels, and performance pieces. She uses music, dance, psychology, sociology, and politics to exercise her voice. In addition to her experiments combining poetry and drama and her collaborative work with other writers, Shange has been on the cutting edge of multimedia performance poetry, adding music to her spoken word performances and releasing audio and video tapes of her work. Although Shange has been criticized for her “worn-out feminist clichés” and her failure to develop her characters adequately, she expresses an honesty and sincerity in her work. Her works are woman-centered: She presents vulnerability, fear, and joy by using dance and music to capture the vitality of women and by using politics and oppressive aspects of society to capture thoughts and attitudes of women.

Her experiments far outweigh the criticisms her work has elicited, and she continues to be an important voice in contemporary literature. During the late 1990’s, she turned her attention toward children’s books, including biographies of jazz musician Duke Ellington and heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. Daddy Says is a children’s novel about two African American girls whose father is a rodeo performer.

In 2010, Shange and her sister, playwright Ifa Bayeza, coauthored the novel Some Sing, Some Cry, a 600-page work following seven generations of women in an African American family while also tracking the evolution of African American music genres, as the women frequently turn to music as a way of coping with the hardships they experience. The same year, Shange released an updated version of for colored girls, including a new poem about HIV/AIDS and references to post-traumatic stress disorder and the Iraq War.

Author Works Drama: for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, pr., pb. 1975 A Photograph: Still Life with Shadows; A Photograph: A Study in Cruelty, pr. 1977, revised pr. 1979 ( as A Photograph: Lovers in Motion) Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon, pr. 1977 (with Thulani Nkabinde and Jessica Hagedorn) From Okra to Greens: A Different Kind a Love Story, pr. 1978 Spell # 7: Geechee Jibara Quik Magic Trance Manual for Technologically Stressed Third World People, pr. 1979 Boogie Woogie Landscapes, pr. 1979 Mother Courage and Her Children, pr. 1980 (adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder) Three Pieces, pb. 1981 Betsey Brown, pr. 1991 (adaptation of her novel) The Love Space Demands: A Continuing Saga, pb. 1991 Plays: One, pb. 1992 Three Pieces, pb. 1992 Long Fiction: Sassafras: A Novella, 1976 Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo, 1982 Betsey Brown, 1985 Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter, 1994 Some Sing, Some Cry, 2010 (with Ifa Bayeza) Poetry: Nappy Edges, 1978 Natural Disasters and Other Festive Occasions, 1979 A Daughter’s Geography, 1983, 1991 From Okra to Greens: Poems, 1984 Ridin’ the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings, 1987 I Live in Music, 1994 The Sweet Breath of Life: A Poetic Narrative of the African-American Family, 2004 Nonfiction: See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays, and Accounts, 1976–1983, 1984 If I Can Cook, You Know God Can, 1998 Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Whitewash, 1997 Ellington Was Not a Street, 2002 Muhammad Ali: The Man Who Could Float Like a Butterfly and Sting Like a Bee, 2002 Daddy Says, 2003 Coretta Scott, 2009 Edited Text: The Beacon Best of 1999: Creative Writing by Women and Men of All Colors, 2000 Bibliography Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. A good study of Shange, along with Alice Childress and Lorraine Hansberry. Focuses on for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf and the 1979 trilogy Spell No. 7, Boogie Woogie Landscapes, and A Photograph: Lovers in Motion. Effiong, Philip Uko. In Search of a Model for African American Drama: A Study of Selected Plays by Lorraine Hansberry, Amiri Baraka, and Ntozake Shange. New York: University Press of America, 2000. Analyzes the historical and sociopolitical considerations that determine the choices made by each dramatist. Lester, Neal A. Ntozake Shange: A Critical Study of the Plays. New York: Garland, 1995. Lester examines critically Shange’s contributions to the American stage, suggests aspects of her work for further study, and contextualizes Shange’s drama within appropriate literary traditions. Olaniyan, Tejumala. Scars of Conquest/Masks of Resistance: The Invention of Cultural Identities in African, African-American, and Caribbean Drama. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Study of English-speaking dramatists that gives special attention to Amiri Baraka, Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott, and Ntozake Shange. Russell, Sandi. Render Me My Song: African American Women Writers from Slavery to the Present. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Covers Shange’s work through Betsey Brown, whose stage version was written with Emily Mann. Good biography and comments on the “choreopoem” format. Discusses the trilogy of plays ending with A Photograph: Lovers in Motion and compares Shange’s work with Bertolt Brecht’s Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (pr. 1941, pb. 1949; Mother Courage and Her Children, 1941). Places Shange in context with Alexis DeVeaux, Rita Dove, and Toni Cade Bambara, women trying blues styles fed by oral traditions Shange, Ntozake. Interview. In Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, edited by Kathleen Betsko. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987. A candid interview with Shange. Shange, Ntozake, and Emily Mann. “The Birth of an R&B Musical.” Interview by Douglas J. Keating. The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 26, 1989. Follows the story of how Emily Mann and Shange took Shange’s Betsey Brown from book to stage, in a long interview with both playwrights to mark the opening of the play at the Forum Theater in Philadelphia, as part of the American Music Theater Festival. Shange says of Mann, “Emily is one of the few American playwrights who understands the drama of the blending of voices.” Sommers, Michael. “Rays of Hope in a Sky of Blues.” Review of The Love Space Demands by Ntozake Shange. Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.), March 12, 1992. This appreciative review of The Love Space Demands provides an insightful overview of how Shange takes her poetry to the stage. Sommers finds the work “[a] very accessible, dramatically gripping and altogether handsomely-done theater piece.” “Spell #7 Takes Us on Magical Trip.” Review of Spell #7 by Ntozake Shange. Times (Washington, D.C.), May 9, 1991. This descriptive review of Spell #7 places the piece in the context of a continuing struggle of black women for a dignified place in society: “After all the tribulations and outpourings of feeling, the lingering message is one of racial pride.”

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