Ntozake Shange calls for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf a choreopoem; it is a performance piece made up of twenty-three poems that are chanted, sung, and danced to musical accompaniment by seven women. Originally performed in improvisational style in Berkeley, California, in 1974, the play was picked up in an expanded form by the New York Shakespeare Festival, which first presented it in an Obie Award-winning production in 1976 at the Henry Street Play House and then moved it to the Booth Theatre on Broadway, where it had a long, successful run.
Shange is considered a pioneer both for the collage-like techniques of her drama and for her subject matter: the anger of African American women at their double subjugation at the hands of white America and black men. While some critics were disturbed at what they saw as her generally negative depiction of black males and her disconnection from traditional black political concerns, others saw in for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf an attempt to find new solutions to the reality of the lives of African American women. Shange’s work may be considered, along with that of Margaret Walker, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, a harbinger of the African American cultural renaissance that began in the early 1980’s.
This emergence of African American culture into the mainstream of American life signifies the culture’s transition from being an attack on the obstacles of black self-realization to what has been called “the moment of becoming.” The possibilities of what that moment of change may mean open up numerous potential paths, some traditional, some not. Shange, in interviews, has identified herself not only with the North American black community but also with women’s culture and with the culture of the developing world. She sees herself as a “child of the new world,” who must help forge a new language in order to function fully and to express the experience of that new world. Fluent in French, Spanish, and Portuguese, Shange has been able to cross communication boundaries in American, African, and European cultures. Brought up as a Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Unitarian, she practices Methodist Episcopalianism and Santería. Raised in the jazz culture and race politics of the 1950’s, educated at Barnard and the University of Southern California (USC), she participated in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s and in the communal feminism of the 1970’s. While a graduate student at USC, she adopted the names ntozake, “she who comes with her own things,” and shange, “she who walks like a lion.”
In for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, this complex of influences reveals itself. Praised for its faithful replication of black women’s speech and movement that transcended stereotypes, the piece reflects the call-and-response pattern of the African American church in its use of monologue against a chorus of voices. Its incantatory use of music, language, and dance is a reflection of candomblé and Santería. The language in the play ignores standard grammar and punctuation in an effort to re-create the music of African American storytelling. Shange attempts both to confront the issues of black women’s sexuality and exploitation and to transcend that exploitation in an exploration of the possibilities of re-creation of the self that is grounded in the life-giving forces of nature and sisterhood.