Ntozake Shange American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3600

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...

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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 than as the storytellers of the earlier play: They interact through dialogue and action and advance a plot. Two of the characters, Sean and Michael, are struggling artists; he is a photographer, she is a dancer. Earl and Nevada are both attorneys; Earl is also a longtime friend of Sean. The fifth character, Claire, is a model who poses for Sean’s photography.

The plot concerns Sean’s relationships with the three women: Michael, Nevada, and Claire. All three are or have been his lovers; initially, he wants to maintain all these relationships, saying to Michael: “There are a number of women in my life/ who i plan to keep in my life.” Nevada and Michael, however, each want an exclusive relationship with Sean, a situation that results in several confrontations among the characters, including a physical fight between Michael and Claire. Sean, who has decided he is most attracted to Michael, attempts to persuade Earl to take up with Nevada. The final scene is a confrontation among all five characters, from which three withdraw, leaving Sean and Michael together.

Although the emotional entanglements are played out fairly realistically, Shange retains her commitment to poetic drama. In addition to realistic exchanges among the characters, the characters speak in lyrical passages describing their feelings and aspirations. Some of these lyrical sections are performed by a single character, alone on stage. Even when placed in the context of dialogue, the passages seem more like solo expressions than genuine exchanges. In the first scene, Sean has a long lyrical passage on his artistic hero, the nineteenth century French novelist Alexandre Dumas, to which Michael responds with a long poem on the image of a man she had heard of that has governed the choices she has made in her own relationships with men.

Sean and Michael also have poetic speeches concerning their feelings about and ambitions for their respective art forms, photography and dance. They describe these two arts in similar terms, as activities that enable them to fix a moment in time. Michael describes dance as allowing her to “be free in time/ a moment is mine always.” Sean says that “a photograph is like a fingerprint/ it stays & stays forever.”

A Photograph touches on a number of Shange’s major themes. The issues concerning relationships between African American women and men are addressed through the attitudes expressed by the characters, including Sean’s view that he can be involved with as many women as he chooses, Nevada’s desperate need for Sean, Claire’s indiscriminate seductiveness, and Michael’s attraction to a kind of man she knows to be dangerous. Shange raises racial issues through Nevada, who considers herself racially superior to the other characters, even though all are African Americans, because her slave ancestors were freed earlier than those of the other characters. She looks down on the others and refers to them in disparaging racial terms, yet she is attracted to the very qualities she disparages in Sean.

As artists, Sean and Michael must also address the issues confronted by Shange’s creative characters. Sean views his art as a means of satisfying personal needs. He sees the story of Alexandre Dumas’s rejection of his illegitimate son as an allegory for his own unsatisfying relationship with his father, and also for the position of the black man in American culture. He fantasizes that he will receive the Nobel Prize for photographs that reveal the truth of African American life. Michael questions his ambitions, suggesting that he is more interested in personal success than in the integrity of his art, or the lives of the human subjects he photographs.

The women in the play represent different options for Sean. Nevada is a snobbish, wealthy, professional woman who wants to support Sean’s career but looks down on his artistic lifestyle. Claire, the model, represents the sensual side of Sean’s work. His photographs of her are provocative, but they lack the seriousness of purpose to which he aspires. By choosing Michael as his true love, Sean chooses the one woman who understands and shares in the nature of the creative artist and who challenges Sean to remain faithful to his higher aspirations.

Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo

First published: 1982

Type of work: Novel

Three sisters discover themselves through explorations of their ethnicity, sexuality, and creativity.

Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo incorporates Shange’s earlier novella Sassafras (1976). Apparently set during the Vietnam War era, it tells the story of Hilda Effania and her three daughters, African American natives of Charleston, South Carolina, descendants of a family of weavers who did piecework for a wealthy white family. Hilda Effania has conventional aspirations for her daughters, hoping that each will marry well and happily, preferably to a doctor’s son. She gives them the means to follow an upwardly mobile path: She sends Sassafrass to an exclusive northern prep school and Cypress to New York City to study ballet. She offers Indigo the opportunity to study the violin. Her daughters, however, are not content merely to follow the paths she suggests to them.

The daughters’ stories are told separately. Indigo’s story concerns her arrival at sexual maturity at the age of twelve and the resulting changes in her life. Her constant companions have been dolls she has made, and she sees herself as inhabiting a world of magical people and events. When she is on the verge of giving up her dolls, Uncle John the ragpicker, one of the mysterious figures she has befriended, gives her a violin. She becomes adept at improvising on the instrument, producing unconventional but compelling music. Initially resisting her mother’s desire that she learn to play properly, she ultimately does learn to play conventionally.

For a while, Indigo uses the magical power of her fiddle as part of a motorcycle gang, the Geechee Capitans. Her epiphany occurs when she is being chased during a misadventure through vaults where African slaves were once imprisoned. At that point, she renounces her flirtation with a life of violence: “Indigo knew her calling. The Colored had hurt enough already.” Ultimately, she goes to live with her aunt on a coastal Carolina island, where she learns the aunt’s trade of midwifery.

Despite her education, Sassafrass eschews college in favor of the artistic life. A weaver like her mother, she has turned the craft of weaving into an art form, weaving expressive hangings rather than utilitarian cloth. In Los Angeles, she becomes involved with Mitch, a tenor saxophonist and drug addict, with whom she has a tempestuous relationship. Mitch wants Sassafrass not to be a weaver but to express herself through writing. They finally move together to an artistic commune in Louisiana, where Sassafrass finds herself through religion and leaves Mitch behind definitively.

Sassafrass’s story is interwoven to an extent with Cypress’s—during a stormy episode with Mitch, Sassafrass goes to visit her sister in San Francisco. Cypress has become a dancer in an African American idiom rather than ballet, with a dance troupe called The Kushites Returned. She supports herself largely by selling drugs and surrounds herself with a bohemian entourage. She travels with The Kushites Returned to New York City. Disgusted with the behavior of the male dancers around her, she enters the orbit of Azure Bosom, a radical feminist dance company by which she feels comforted and protected for a time. Feeling betrayed by one of the dancers in Azure Bosom, however, she falls into a relationship with Leroy, an alto saxophonist, with whom she finds happiness.

Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo combines third-person narration with other literary forms: It includes letters, journal entries, even recipes and magical spells. Although each sister’s story is told separately, they are punctuated by letters to the sisters from their mother which frame each story in terms of the mother’s values and ambitions for them. This diversity mirrors the multiple pressures and issues the three women must face as they discover themselves. Each woman must, in her own way, reconcile the need for autonomy with her family and ethnic history, and with the urge to create. Indigo negotiates her mother’s disapproval of her interest in magic and desire to leave the mythological aspect of their heritage behind by immersing herself in Geechee culture, where she is accepted as a midwife and woman of magic, while simultaneously studying the violin. Her fiddle playing, spell casting, and desire to help her race fit comfortably into the folk culture of the island.

Through her immersion in non-Western religion, Sassafrass also finds a context that gives her natural creative outlet, weaving, a higher significance. Cypress explores several possibilities, expressing aspects of herself through her work with African American and feminist dance companies. Through her relationship with Leroy, she is freed from the attempts of others to define her creativity and also freed to express her rage at the historical mistreatment of African Americans. Ultimately, all three women return to Charleston to attend to the birth of Sassafrass’s child. Each has found her own path and place in life, her own way of reconciling their common conflicts, and her own way of permitting her particular sense of personal and racial identity to create a context for her need to create.

Betsey Brown

First published: 1985

Type of work: Novel

Betsey Brown, a thirteen-year-old girl in St. Louis, negotiates the pressures of growing up in a racially charged atmosphere.

Although all of Shange’s works contain elements of autobiography, Betsey Brown is the most overtly autobiographical, clearly deriving from Shange’s own experiences as a young teenager in St. Louis during the 1950’s. Like Shange, Betsey is a member of an upper-middle-class black family originally from the North. Her father, Greer, is a physician, while her mother, Jane, is a social worker. Many of the book’s episodes describe universal adolescent experiences: Betsey contends with her physical maturation, her desire for a boyfriend, and her need for privacy and a sense of her own identity. She also, however, confronts issues that are specific to the African American experience.

Stylistically, Betsey Brown is more conventional than Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo. The narrative follows Betsey through a series of experiences from an omniscient third-person point of view that makes the reader privy to Betsey’s thoughts and emotions in addition to her behavior. The point of view shifts periodically, so that the thoughts and motivations of the adults in Betsey’s life (her parents and her grandmother, for example) are made available to the reader as well. In this way, the reader is able to share Betsey’s adolescent perspective on the world around her while also gaining some perspective on her through the thoughts of those responsible for her environment.

The Brown household is distinctive. Greer, who is intensely concerned that his children grow up with an appreciation of African American culture, wakes them each morning by beating on a conga drum (Shange’s own father was a percussionist) and by playing jazz and rhythm and blues on the household radio. Jane is somewhat disapproving of this raucous behavior but accepts it out of her love for Greer. Greer’s mother-in-law, Vida, looks down upon him as too overtly African for her tastes. This intraracial discrimination causes the major conflicts in the narrative.

Betsey identifies with her father’s appreciation for the sensual side of African American culture. Her ambition is to sing with Ike and Tina Turner as an “Ikette.” Her identification with African Americanism is only heightened by her being bused to a white school, where she feels alienated and out of place. Her mother’s tacit disapproval of Betsey’s particular sense of her race causes Betsey to attempt to run away to a place where she can be the kind of African American she wants to be, away from the pressures of white society and her own mother’s desire for gentility. The tension between Greer’s and Jane’s respective senses of themselves as black people also creates a rift between them, which causes Jane to leave her family for a period after Greer insists to her that he wants their children to participate in a demonstration against segregation.

Another set of events that address social issues within the African American community has to do with the Brown family’s efforts to secure domestic help. The people they hire are other African Americans who have come to St. Louis from rural areas of the South and are somewhat looked down upon by the urbanites. After Betsey and her three siblings terrorize one such character, Betsey is made to feel ashamed by a friend of hers whose mother does domestic work. A subsequent domestic has better luck with the family, only to lose her job after committing a crime.

Although the tensions governing the story between an insular black community and the surrounding white world, between growing children and the adults trying to maintain order, and between different understandings of African American cultural and social aspirations are not fully resolved at the end of the story, they are sufficiently resolved to allow the family to continue as a unit and to permit Betsey some sense of having her own place in her world.

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