Ntozake Shange was born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey, on October 18, 1948, the eldest of four children. Her father, Paul T. Williams, was a surgeon, and her mother, Eloise Williams, was a psychiatric social worker and educator. During her childhood, her family moved from Trenton to upstate New York, then to St. Louis, Missouri.
Although many of the characters she writes about in her literary works are rural, poor, or members of the urban underclass, Shange grew up in a privileged, upper-middle-class environment. Her father was a musician and painter as well as a ringside surgeon, and the Williams household was frequently visited by well-known African American musicians, writers, and sports figures. Cultural and artistic achievement was emphasized within the family environment; the members of the Williams family would entertain one another on Sundays with readings, music, and dance.
Despite this protective environment, Shange was spared neither the experience of racial discrimination nor that of sexual discrimination. As a young teenager in St. Louis, she was bused, as part of a desegregation program, to a mostly white school, where she felt out of place and was mistreated by her fellow students. She was also told that her career goals (she wanted to be a war correspondent or a jazz musician) were not appropriate for a woman. Experiences of these kinds are the roots of the interest in feminism and African American issues that informs Shange’s literary work.
Shange attended Barnard College in New York City, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in American studies, emphasizing African American poetry and music, in 1970. She married a lawyer; depression over his leaving her prompted several suicide attempts. (A later marriage, to jazz musician David Murray, would also dissolve.) She became active in political and social movements, concluding later, however, that they were not receptive to women. She went on to graduate study in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California, where she earned a master’s degree in American studies in 1973. She changed her name in 1971 as part of her effort to establish her African American identity. The name Ntozake means “she who comes with her own things,” while Shange means “who walks like a lion.” The new name clearly represents the strength and independence that Shange, like many of the characters in her writings, was seeking.
While living in Oakland, California, and teaching in the women’s studies program of a nearby college, Shange began giving readings of the poems she had been writing, often collaborating with dancer Paula Moss, who would develop dances based on the poems. On occasion, Shange and Moss also collaborated with musicians. These experiments developed into the theatrical text for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf (1975). Shange and Moss moved to New York City in 1975, where they performed the work in a variety of venues. Ultimately, their work attracted the attention of theatrical producers, first Woodie King, the preeminent producer of African American theater in New York, then the New York Shakespeare Festival’s Joseph Papp. Papp first produced the play at the festival’s Public Theatre, then transferred it to a commercial theater in 1976, where it enjoyed a two-year run.
For colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, which received almost uniformly favorable reviews, was also criticized for some of its feminist sentiments and its depiction of African American men. The work catapulted Shange into the public eye. She continued to write plays, and Papp continued to produce them at the Public Theatre. Her next play was A Photograph: Still Life...
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with Shadows; A Photograph: A Study in Cruelty (1977), published in 1981 as A Photograph: Lovers in Motion. Subsequent plays include Boogie Woogie Landscapes (first produced in 1979) and Spell # 7: Geechee Jibara Quik Magic Trance Manual for Technologically Stressed Third World People (1979). Her adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mutter Courage und ihre Kinder (1941; Mother Courage and Her Children) was produced at the Public Theatre in 1980. In 1985, she adapted her novel Betsey Brown (1985) for the musical stage in collaboration with playwright Emily Mann and composer Baikida Carroll; the musical premiered in 1989.
In addition to acting in for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, Shange continued to perform her poetry. Her first published collections of poems were Nappy Edges (1978) and Natural Disasters and Other Festive Occasions (1979). Shange’s first effort at writing fiction was the novella Sassafrass (1976), which she later expanded into the novel Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo (1982). Her major publications of the 1980’s include A Daughter’s Geography (1983), a collection of poems, and See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays, and Accounts, 1976-1983 (1984), a collection of prose pieces. Returning to an interest in the visual arts inspired by her father’s activity as a painter, Shange collaborated with visual artist Wopo Holup for From Okra to Greens (1984), a collection of poems and illustrations based on a piece first performed in 1978, and wrote Ridin’ the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings (1987), a collection of responses in prose and poetry to works of visual art by a variety of artists. Shange’s poetry has received more consistently favorable critical response than her work in other forms.
Her writing does not fall easily into the traditional categories of drama, poetry, and fiction, however; it is noteworthy that she won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry in 1981 for Three Pieces (1981), actually a collection of plays in poetry. She has received a number of other prestigious literary and theatrical awards, including two Obie (Off-Broadway) awards and the Pushcart Prize. Although her recent work for the theater has not attracted the attention lavished on for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, Shange has continued to write plays and to direct her own plays and those of others, often in experimental theater spaces or outside New York. She serves on the faculty in the department of drama at the University of Houston and makes her permanent residence in Philadelphia.