Last reviewed: June 2018
American playwright, novelist, and poet
October 18, 1948
Trenton, New Jersey
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.
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.