Ntozake Shange Drama Analysis
In Ntozake Shange’s introduction to the volume Three Pieces, she makes this statement about drama: “as a poet in american theater/ i find most activity that takes place on our stages overwhelmingly shallow/ stilted & imitative. that is probably one of the reasons i insist on calling myself a poet or writer/ rather than a playwright/ i am interested solely in the poetry of a moment/ the emotional & aesthetic impact of a character or a line.”
Her plays have evoked a range of critical responses commensurate with their unconventional nature. Should her work be characterized as poetry or drama, prose or poetry, essay or autobiography? Her choreopoems, made up of poetry, drama, prose, and autobiography, are unified by a militant feminism in which some critics have seen a one-sided attack on black men. Others, however, point out the youthful spirit, flair with language, and lyricism that carry her plays to startling and radical conclusions. Her style and its seeming contradictions, such as the use of both black English and the erudite vocabulary of the educated, are at the heart of her drama. Influenced by their method of development—public poetry reading in bars, cafés, schools, Off-Off-Broadway theaters—the plays are generally somewhere between a poetry reading and a staged play.
First among the contradictions or contrasts is her blending of genres: Her poems shade into drama, her dramas are essentially verse monologues, and her novels incorporate poetic passages. Second, her language varies radically—on a single page and even in a single phrase—from black dialect (“cuz,” “wanna,” “awready,” “chirren”) to the language of her middle-class upbringing and education (“i cant count the number of times i have viscerally wanted to attack deform n maim the language that i waz taught to hate myself in/”). In the published texts of her poetry, plays, and essays, in addition to simplified phonetic spellings, she employs the slash instead of the period and omits capitalization. Many recordings of her work are available, and these provide the listener with a much fuller sense of the dynamic quality of her language in performance.
Shange’s bold and daring use of language, her respect for people formerly given little value, and her exploration of the roles of black men and women have opened a new dimension in theater. Her blendings of poetry, music, and dance bring theater back to its origins and simultaneously blaze a trail toward the drama of the future.
for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf
Shange’s first dramatic success, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, is the recital, individually and in chorus, of the lives and growth of seven different black women, named according to their dress colors: “lady in red,” “lady in blue,” “lady in orange,” “lady in brown,” “lady in yellow,” “lady in purple,” and “lady in green.” The term “colored girls” in the title evokes a stereotype of black women yet also contains a germ of hope for the future (the “rainbow,” both of color and of eventual salvation).
These seven stylized figures are representative voices of black women, and they express their fury at their oppression both as women and as blacks. The first segment shows high school graduation and the social and sexual rite of passage for “colored girls” in the working-class suburbs. Some of the women who have been cruelly disappointed in relationships with men discuss their spiritual quests. A black woman pretends to be Puerto Rican so that she can dance the merengue in Spanish Harlem. A woman breaks up with her lover by returning to him his plant to water. The scenes become more somber, portraying rape, abuse, city dangers, and abortion. Ties with a more heroic black past appear in “Toussaint,” while the glamorized prostitute evicts her lover from her bed. The women begin to analyze their predicaments and to assert their independence in segments entitled “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff” and “pyramid,” in which three women console one another for the actions of the faithless lover whom they share. In the brutal culminating scene, a crazed Vietnam veteran, Beau Willie Brown, abuses his woman Crystal and kills their infant children, dropping them from a window.
The recurrent motif of the recitation is the thwarting of dreams and aspirations for a decent life by forces beyond one’s control: war, poverty, and ignorance. There is, however, a saving grace. Toward the end of the play, the seven women fall into a tighter circle of mutual support, much like a religious “laying on of hands” ceremony, in which they say, “i found god in myself/ & i loved her/ i loved her fiercely.” Their bitter pain, shown throughout the dramatic episodes, turns into a possibility of regeneration. Thus, the play is a drama of salvation for women who do not receive their full value in society.
Though it was a landmark in the emergence of new black women playwrights, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf has been criticized for its lack of discussion of black traditions in religion, family, and ordinary work, and for its omissions of both black literary and political history and the influence of whites. Its style, considered as an attack on language, part of blacks’ “enslavement,” has also been criticized. Later plays, however, include these elements in a constantly enriching network of allusions.
In A Photograph, a set of meditations and sketches involving an ideal black woman named Michael and her lover Sean, a failed photographer, Shange explores her idea of art—“the poetry of a moment”—as well as representative stages of the African American experience. Photography, dance, and drama are shown to be art forms that capture meaningful moments and present them to viewers and readers so that they might behold and understand the essence and the value of art and life. The young professionals that reside in or pass through Sean’s San Francisco apartment-studio are shown to examine the psychological factors that impede and that motivate them and other African Americans.
The five figures of this piece are representative of other aspects of black life than those put forward in her first play. Nevada, a lawyer and lover-supporter of Sean, the struggling artist, sets herself above other “common” African Americans: Her family, she boasts, “was manumitted in 1843/ [when] yall were still slaves/ carrying things for white folks . . . /” The upwardly mobile Earl, also a lawyer, former lover of Claire and long-time friend of Sean, pleads Nevada’s case to Sean when the latter rejects her. Claire is a...
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