Shange’s Presents the Black Female Psyche Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With her choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, Ntozake Shange dramatically increased public awareness of the black female search for self-identity.

Summary of Event

Following a two-month run at Off-Off Broadway’s Henry Street Settlement New Federal Theater, Ntozake Shange’s first play, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, opened Off-Broadway on June 1, 1976, at Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival Public/Anspacher Theater. After 120 performances, for colored girls . . . closed on August 29, 1976, to open September 15, 1976, on Broadway for 746 shows at the Booth Theatre. Shange’s choreographed poetry, Choreopoetry or “choreopoem,” broke barriers in both content and form by sharing the experiences and emotional lives of seven women of color through language, music, and motion. Theater;choreopoetry African Americans;theater Choreography;and poetry[poetry] Theater;choreopoetry African Americans;theater Choreography;and poetry[poetry] Shange, Ntozake Moss, Paula Scott, Oz Grahn, Judy Osumare, Halifu Baraka, Amiri Kennedy, Adrienne

Shange began to develop her choreopoem in San Francisco’s coffeehouses, bars, and studios, improvising with five female poets and dancers, seeking first to explore their unique and communal identities and then to communicate their discoveries. Sonoma State College’s women’s studies program provided her with a historical context, and Shange’s study of dance gave her a pervasive sense of familiarity and comfort with her body as an instrument of communication.

After seeing the group’s typically informal presentation of the work during a summer music festival, theatrical director Oz Scott recognized the inherent quality of the production and proposed to give the show a more polished staging. Shange later noted that the moment she relinquished directorial control to Scott was the first time she could see the twenty individual poems as an integrated whole, a choreopoem. Even so, the show’s evolution in content and in form continued until, seven years after its inception, for colored girls . . . overwhelmed the Broadway stage and the hearts of audiences at the Booth Theatre.

On a stage bare of a traditional set or props, seven female characters are identified simply by the colors they wear as Lady in Brown, Lady in Yellow, Lady in Red, Lady in Green, Lady in Purple, Lady in Blue, and Lady in Orange. These colors are reinforced by the set’s lighting scheme. The only additional distinguishing descriptors are the entrances and exits unique to each character.

Absent also is the traditional three-act linear plot, as well as the classic dramatic monologue. No one character holds center stage or her own character boundaries. Instead, in a pulsating series of vignettes in which the women relinquish their own identities to play whatever role best supports the spotlighted figure’s tale, stereotypes are demolished. The internal anguish of living in a world where being both black and female seems to negate a character’s right to exist is revealed, and the will to survive is celebrated.

Ntozake Shange.

(Jules Allen)

With humor, music, dance, black dialects, and movement, the characters explore themselves and their relationships. They acknowledge their complicity through passive subjugation in destructive relationships. They reveal their profound sense of emptiness, anguish, and loss. As they and their audience embrace and move through the mutual pain, the sharing gradually transmutes grief and rage into a vital strength, a resilience. Acceptance of self as powerful and recognition of the crucial significance of female bonding in a relentlessly antipathetic world transcend the learned behavior of silent, suffering subjugation and open the way of the heart to rebirth, to actualization.

Audience members, female and male, involved in for colored girls . . . leave the theater viscerally moved by their experience, perhaps without the consolation of the classic catharsis, but infinitely more aware of themselves, of others, and of the hope of transcendence. Dramatic production of Shange’s choreopoem reaches beyond gender and beyond race to sound a universal human chord.

For colored girls . . . was nominated for a Tony Award and a Grammy Award. The choreopoem won Obie Awards Obie Awards for playwriting, directing, and ensemble acting. It also won the Outer Critics’ Circle Award and four AUDELCO Awards. Acknowledgment that Shange’s creation had shattered invisible, perhaps unconscious, barriers was instantaneous.

Despite the awards, the critical acclaim, and the overwhelming audience response, Shange moved toward performance art pieces as her stated dramatic preference. As a performance artist, she prefers alternative spaces, intimate audiences, and experimental theater pieces. Nevertheless, after having been a playwright, actor, dancer, and director, she still considers herself a poet first.

Significance

Although a few critics see Shange’s for colored girls . . . as underdeveloped and label any positive reviews as pandering, the impact of the choreopoem is both immediate and continuing. The most immediate impact is that, for the first time, a black female playwright was successful in rendering an accurate dramatic portrayal of the black female psyche: her grief, her rage, her loss of self, her endurance, and her infinite capacity to love. This capacity to love, turned inward, is her saving grace; turned outward, it is the healing laying on of hands for others.

Shange has stated her belief that women can best understand and depict other women. Even though she may have alienated some by her lack of focus on male characters in for colored girls . . . , she would have belied her own beliefs in attempting to draw as accurate a depiction of men. Shange’s message is clear: The black female is worthy of as much dramatic attention as is the black male. The message is an explosive suspension of the widespread notion that the black woman should sacrifice herself if necessary for the well-being of her family.

Similarly, Shange’s smashing of the traditional fourth wall that distances the audience emotionally from the action onstage facilitated the expression of the idea that the female is as worthy of dramatic attention as is the male. In 1976, that women could experience and suppress such traumata was eye-opening to the general public and evoked an emotional bonding among those who chose to heal themselves through sharing and forgiveness.

Shange’s rhythms and verbal patterns are reminiscent of those of poet and playwright Amiri Baraka. As such, the choreopoem, while shattering black cultural myths, also has its roots in the Black Arts movement Black Arts movement inspired by Baraka in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Thus the complexities of being black and female are unavoidably conjoined with the seeming contradictions of being a black feminist dramatic experimentalist. Shange’s work is a balancing act to which women of all races can relate.

When Shange successfully broke with traditional dramatic form to create a form (the choreopoem) more reflective of her black heritage in its integration of language and movement, she also helped to free other playwrights from the obligation to adhere to Aristotelian conventions. Playwright and director Emily Mann Mann, Emily has used the versatility of performance art and juxtaposed monologues to create in her audiences intense emotional responses. She, too, smashes through the fourth wall. Mann has credited Shange as having had significant influence on her dramatic style.

The liberating effects of Shange’s impact extend beyond sexual preference and racial and cultural boundaries. Poet and playwright Alexis DeVeaux DeVeaux, Alexis maximizes the shattering experiences of black lesbians with a dramatic structure similar to that employed by Shange. David Henry Hwang Hwang, David Henry is a Chinese American playwright whose plays invariably reflect explorations into self-identity and the conflicts that inevitably arise with society, tradition, and loved ones. His characterizations, influenced by for colored girls . . . , are nonlinear; his action is rhythmic and free-flowing. Hwang’s attempts to draw his characters well enough that they become universal rather than sociocultural figures is one result of his fascination with the performances of Shange’s choreopoem.

With the emergence of Shange and other female playwrights, many male playwrights became more aware of their female characters and became less likely to subvert these characters’ humanity into plasticity. As a result, some male playwrights became more concerned with women’s speech patterns, subtexts, and motivations. Additionally, some male playwrights became more conscious of their facilitation or violation of the male aesthetic. These changes enriched contemporary dramatic productions, from the traditional to the nontraditional.

Beyond her influence on American theater, Shange enhanced awareness of the mutual human condition across genders and races. She helped to bring down cultural barriers by creating an environment that unites people in the struggle toward higher consciousness. In for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, Ntozake Shange demonstrated that through sharing comes healing and that, with healing, “the rainbow” is indeed enough. Theater;choreopoetry African Americans;theater Choreography;and poetry[poetry]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig. “Ntozake Shange.” In Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987. Excellent and enlightening resource. Shange reflects on her performance art pieces and her multidisciplinary approach to life and art. Covers the playwright’s childhood experiences, theories of writing, and creative process as well as her views on feminism and American and non-American audience responses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. “Black Women Playwrights: Exorcising Myths.” Phylon: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture 48 (Fall, 1987): 229-239. Discusses the dramatic works of Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, and Ntozake Shange in terms of their unique contributions as black female playwrights. Argues that the black female dramatist’s perspective on black life is integral to an undistorted view of the black community. Clearly written and well presented.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2001. Compares the works of these three authors, focusing closely on their approaches to the portrayal of African Americans’ lives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elliot, Jeffrey. “Ntozake Shange: Genesis of a Choreopoem.” Negro History Bulletin 41 (January, 1978): 797-800. Reprints Shange’s introduction to for colored girls following a brief, glowing one-column preface. Valuable for readers without access to Shange’s first-person narrative on the development of the play.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peters, Erskine. “Commentary: Some Tragic Propensities of Ourselves—The Occasion of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 6 (Spring, 1978): 79-85. Negative review of Shange’s play centers on the critic’s dissatisfaction with the playwright’s portrayal of black males, a portrayal he perceives at best as immature and at worst as appallingly destructive. Solid review with valid cross-references; worth reading for an opposing viewpoint.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peterson, Bernard L., Jr. Contemporary Black American Playwrights and Their Plays: A Biographical Directory and Dramatic Index. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Includes a comprehensive listing of Shange’s interests, activities (literary and nonliterary), and publications as well as brief synopses of representative works. An excellent resource base for further research.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rushing, Andrea Benton. “For Colored Girls, Suicide or Struggle.” Massachusetts Review 22 (Autumn, 1981): 539-550. Discusses the play’s sociological import specifically in terms of rising black female suicide rates, increased isolation, lack of extended family support systems, and negative self-image. Worthwhile reading for those interested in the sociological impact of the black cultural experience.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shange, Ntozake. “At the Heart of Shange’s Feminism: An Interview.” Interview by Neal A. Lester. Black American Literature Forum 24 (Winter, 1990): 717-730. Excellent in-depth discussion of Shange’s feminist philosophy includes her reflections on the spiritual growth of both males and females in contemporary American society as well as her views on language as a determinant of behavior. Also gives Shange’s recommendations for additional study.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Ntozake Shange Interviews Herself.” Ms, December, 1977, 35, 70-72. Provides interesting insights into Shange and the questions she believes are important. Shange’s characteristically nontraditional grammatical structure and spelling may be difficult for some readers.

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