Although Shange writes poetry, drama, essays, and fiction, she thinks of herself primarily as a poet. In an essay titled “Unrecovered Losses/ Black Theatre Traditions” (the foreword to Three Pieces), she writes: “I am interested solely in the poetry of a moment” rather than in traditional dramatic structure, which she rejects.
A Shange poem, play, or story typically is best understood as an accumulation of moments rather than as a sustained action or narrative. Many of her early works, especially, are structured as groupings of thematically related poems and lyric passages to be read or performed together. Her best-known play, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, is a series of poems spoken by a group of women. Spell No. 7 (first produced in 1979) begins as a minstrel show, a collection of individual acts and routines.
Shange is concerned primarily with the inner lives of her characters. Her work tends toward the lyrical exploration of those inner lives, even in the context of a realistic, autobiographical novel such as Betsey Brown, in which the main character’s thoughts, imaginings, and reveries are as central to the impact of the story as her actions. The play Boogie Woogie Landscapes consists entirely of the thoughts of one central character, a young woman. Other figures who appear on the stage are her memories and dreams.
The episodic structure, lyricism, and intensely personal tone of Shange’s work, however, do not exclude the expression of larger political and social concerns. Quite the contrary: Shange is concerned with the impact of political and social structures on the inner life of African Americans, particularly African American women. Her description of her characters in one play as “afflicted with the kinds of insecurities and delusions only available to those who learned themselves thru the traumas of racism” could apply to all of her characters. Thematically, Shange’s work reflects an ongoing concern not only with the implications of being black in a white world and female in a male world but also with the forms of discrimination that exist within African American communities (based on skin color, cultural sophistication, urban or rural origins, and so forth) and the difficulties those pressures create for the individual attempting to arrive at a sense of self and a sense of racial identity.
Shange refers frequently to the folk culture of rural, southern African Americans. Although many of her more urbane characters look down upon that culture, it figures in Shange’s work as a source of spirituality and a positive influence on the lives of the characters touched by it. Her works also contain frequent allusions to urban African American culture, especially jazz and rhythm-and-blues music, and to the African American literary heritage.
Important aspects of Shange’s effort to find a distinctly African American voice that reflects the positive values of African American culture are her diction and orthography. She generally writes in a nonstandard English that reflects the grammatical characteristics of African American dialects (the use of “they” for “their,” for example). She uses these dialects to individuate characters and also as narrator or authorial voices in her poems and stories. In this way, she posits so-called Black English as a valid and expressive literary language rather than simply as a nonstandard dialect.
Her early writings and most of her poems are rendered in lower case, using irregular spellings of some words and using both common and unusual abbreviations and symbols (the ampersand, for example) in place of others. In addition to asserting the nonstandard nature of her language, these devices make her writing a form of visual, as well as literary, art. For Shange, her orthography connects her writing with music and dance, which she considers the essential forms of African American culture. Her unconventional spelling and orthography make the visual aspect of her writing akin to dance and make reading her work a participatory act.
for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf
First produced: 1975 (first published, 1975; revised, 1976)
Type of work: Play
Seven African American women describe the pains and joys particular to being black and female in the United States.
For colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf is Shange’s first, and most acclaimed, theater piece. It is not really a play in that it has no continuous plot or conventional development; it consists, rather, of a series of poetic monologues to be accompanied by dance movements and music—a form Shange calls the “choreopoem.” Shange originally wrote the monologues as separate poems in 1974, then began performing them in California with choreography and musical accompaniment under their collective title. After moving to New York City, she continued work on the piece, which opened on Broadway to an enthusiastic reception in 1976.
The play is performed by seven women, each dressed in a different color. In the introduction, the Lady in Brown describes the purpose of the piece as to “sing a black girl’s song/ bring her out to know herself.” The majority of the poetic monologues describe relationships between black women and black men. The Lady in Yellow describes her loss of virginity the night after her high school graduation; the Lady in Brown tells of the first boyfriend she had, at the age of eight. Harboring a secret crush on Toussaint Louverture, the eighteenth century Haitian patriot, the eight-year-old girl finds herself attracted to a young boy, also named Toussaint. The Lady in Red describes “the passion flower of southwest los angeles”—a woman who seduces men, then rejects them.
In a contrapuntal passage, three of the women describe the violence and abuse suffered by women who are raped by male acquaintances. Several speeches concern the women’s feelings of having been rejected by men, despite their love for them. The last, and longest, story, recounted by the Lady in Red, is of Beau Willie, a Vietnam veteran, and Crystal, with whom he has two children. Crystal leaves Beau Willie because of his drug-induced violence and his inability to provide for the children; ultimately, he returns and threatens to kill the children if she will not marry him.
Although the poetic monologues in the play are unquestionably fueled by rage at the mistreatment of black women within their own community, the rage is balanced by compassion and joy. Even Beau Willie, illiterate and adrift after serving his country, is portrayed as a victim as well as a victimizer. Even as the women speak out against their mistreatment, they find pleasure in music, dance, love (when it succeeds), and African American history and heritage, the points of reference in all of Shange’s work. Shange’s diction and style are, as always, ripe and exuberant, themselves testimonies to the joys of creation and expression available to the women on stage.
The ultimate point of the theater piece is that the African American woman must learn to accept herself and her ethnic identity and learn to find strength in herself through them, rather than depending on her relationship with a man for identity. The fact that there are only black women onstage, describing their experiences in the first-person voice, is an expression of Shange’s thesis. In the final passage, the women talk of feeling that they are “missin somethin” even when in love. The Lady in Red describes an epiphany in which she finds the missing thing: “I found god in myself/ & i loved her.” This line combines the sense of self, self-identity, and self-love that Shange’s “choreopoem” is intended to create for black women. The image of the rainbow, enacted by the women dressed in different colors, derives from Shange’s experience of seeing a rainbow and thinking that it represents for African American women “the possibility to start all over again with the power and the beauty of ourselves.”
A Photograph: Lovers in Motion
First produced: 1977 (first published, 1981)
Type of work: Play
Five young African American artists and professionals contend with the difficulty of achieving their aspirations and with changes in the relationships among them.
A Photograph: Lovers in Motion, first produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1977, is a more conventionally structured play than for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. The characters exist as individually developed entities rather...
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