The most consistent criticism leveled at Shange’s play has come from those who have accused her of portraying black men in a very negative light. Her critics argue that in her attempt to articulate a feminist viewpoint, she attacks the black male as being void of anything positive to contribute to the life of the black woman. Such criticism is misdirected. Shange’s play succeeds because of its relentlessly honest look at the pain of being a black woman in white society. Rather than creating a discourse that posits white oppression as the core reason for black suffering, Shange instead focuses on the black experience and tries to allow black women to talk about their most intimate secrets. Most of the women in the play share a view that positive male-female relationships are a desirable dream. (Shange’s later lesbian politics do not emerge in this work, as she posits heterosexuality as a norm.) Also, Shange grants the black male a certain dignity in her narrative about the Haitian leader Toussaint L’Overture, who becomes actualized in the young boy Toussaint Jones. This incarnation has deep symbolic importance, because it suggests that the black woman can find a heroic figure even within her limited existence in working-class America.
There is little question, however, that Shange seeks to challenge the patriarchal worldview that has prevented the black woman from having her own stories told in American literature. The play evolved out of a need to join the growing voices of Third World women who sought, in the early 1970’s, to express the visions and aspirations of women of color. It also attempted to present a distinctively black interpretation of the “white feminist movement” in a manner that demonstrated that the women’s movement was not necessarily articulating the needs and expectations of black women. Shange’s care for detail in her depiction of the black working-class experience points to this fact explicitly. Her characters are not middle-class, privileged women seeking to gain an upper hand in the patriarchal world order, but working women who have discovered a need to share secrets and truths about how they have survived for so many years.
The very “blackness” of the work, evident in the use of black music, Afrocentric dance, and a distinctly Afrocentric narrative style, situates the piece squarely as a work that locates its ethos in African American culture. The art of storytelling and the carefully constructed, nonlinear pattern of echoes and resonance become metaphorical expressions of the African American experience. Consequently, the feminist content of the work is defined in terms of this experience. Ritual, as a means to arrive at spiritual awakening and truth, becomes central to the work, and the impact of the call-response and chant oratorical patterns (common to Afrocentric folk patterns) on the ultimate vision of triumph and possibility at the end of the work illustrates Shange’s commitment to an Afrocentric vision in her articulation of her feminist perspective.
This distinct perspective is most apparent, however, in her use (or misuse) of language. In the drama, Shange literally usurps Prospero’s language and makes it her own as a weapon to challenge the norms perpetuated by Prospero. As a feminist Caliban, Shange uses a lexical system that is primarily aural in its adherence to tonality and rhythm. She remains unrestrained by imposed conventions and generates a work that shifts from the transcendence of symbolism and metaphor (as she demonstrates in “sechita”), to stark and minimalist realism (as she demonstrates in “a nite with beau willie brown”), to the raw and explicit language of the street (as she shows in the sequence “somebody almost...
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walked off with alla my stuff”). Related to this use of language is her consistent articulation of the need for black artists to use Afrocentric artistic forms to express their own ideas. The narrative that looks at Toussaint L’Overture expresses well the need for blacks to reclaim important historical figures that have been erased from their psyche for centuries. She repeats this statement in her description of Sechita, the goddess figure.
Shange’s work succeeds as well as it does because she does not remain locked in lofty generalizations and polemics. Her characters are grounded in everyday reality. One woman complains about her fear of being mugged in the streets of New York, while another weeps alone at night after empty sex with yet another lover in San Francisco. Similarly, three women try to find some dignity after recognizing that they are victims of one man’s duplicity. The women humorously, but with startling candor and accuracy, list some of the excuses that they have received from men who have in some way abused or hurt them. Shange demonstrates the feminist adage “the political is personal” in a most compelling manner in this play.
For colored girls who have considered suicide must be experienced as a series of related vignettes with a central dramatic rhythm that explodes in the final few movements. This intelligence about what works dramatically, even when significant experimentation and a certain degree of didacticism is taking place, makes Shange’s work a monumental achievement in American theater.