Ntozake Shange Shange, Ntozake (Vol. 126) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ntozake Shange 1948–

(Born Paulette Williams) American playwright, poet, novelist, and essayist.

The following entry provides an overview of Shange's career through 1994. For further information on her life and works, see CLC Volumes 8, 25, 38, and 74.

Ntozake Shange is best known for her first dramatic production, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (1975). In this work, she incorporates poetic monologue into a dramatic performance, a form she has termed the "choreopoem," and which has also been referred to as "staged poetry." Shange is noted for her dramatic representations of the experiences of African-American women in a theatrical style which incorporates poetry, dance, and music into dramatic monologues. Her novels, like her dramatic works, incorporate a variety of forms, such as recipes, dreams, songs, and letters in a pastiche format, rather than in a conventional narrative. Her collections of poetry share the poetic form incorporated into her dramatic writing. Shange has been both praised and criticized for the ways in which she foregrounds the intersection of race and gender oppression in the experiences of African-American women. Her portrayals of relationships between African-American women and men have also received mixed reactions from critics. Her portrayals of African-American men have been criticized as unsympathetic portraits where the men serve as obstacles in the path of African-American women. While Shange focuses on the pain of their experiences, her characters maintain a sense of triumph over their circumstances, often through finding inner strength and celebrating friendship with other women.

Biographical Information

Shange was born Paulette Williams, the eldest child in a professional middle class black family. Her father was a surgeon and her mother a psychiatric social worker. During Shange's youth she was exposed to many of the foremost black intellectuals and musicians of the time through her parents's social interactions with people such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, and W. E. B. Du Bois. She received a B.A. from Barnard college and an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Southern California. During college, she went through a period of depression after separating from her husband, and attempted suicide several times. During her years in graduate school she chose the name Ntozake Shange for herself as a way of connecting with her African roots: "Ntozake" means "she who comes with her own things," and "Shange" signifies "she who walks like a lion." Shange has taught playwriting and creative writing at the University of Houston in Texas.

Major Works

For colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf is Shange's first dramatic production, and the work which defined her career and reputation. It began as a series of poems, which were later incorporated into a single dramatic performance. For colored girls is structured as a series of vignettes relayed through the poetic monologues of the seven principal characters, all African-American women. These monologues incorporate music and dance into the poetic form, as each woman conveys painful experiences such as rape, illegal abortion, and discordant relationships. The message of the play is ultimately triumphant, as Shange's characters conclude that African-American women should look to a female God within themselves for strength, and appreciate that the "rainbow" of their own color is sufficient to sustain them. Shange's second dramatic production. Spell #7 (1979), is similar in form and style to for colored girls, but focuses primarily on racial issues. In Spell #7, a group of African-American actors congregate at a local bar, and relate painful experiences, in poetic monologue, dealing with racial matters in their lives. While emphasizing the poetic monologue, Spell #7 has a more conventional narrative than for colored girls, in that the characters interact with one another in the context of a semi-developed story line. Mother Courage and Her Children (1980) was adapted from the Bertolt Brecht drama. While the original play was set in seventeenth-century Europe, Shange sets her characters in the post-Civil War era in the United States, where African American soldiers were employed to aid in the massacre of Native Americans in the West. Mother Courage supports herself by selling wares to white people, without concern for the moral implications of her actions. Shange's first full-length novel, Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo (1982), was adapted from her novella entitled Sassafrass (1976). The story centers on three sisters and their relationships with men and each other. Sassafrass is a weaver who cannot leave Mitch, a musician who abuses drugs and beats her. Cypress, a dancer in feminist productions, struggles against becoming romantically involved. Indigo, the youngest sister, retreats into her imagination, befriending her childhood dolls, seeing only the poetry and magic of the world. The novel is written in a pastiche style, which includes recipes, magic spells, poetry, letters and other written forms to build its narrative. Betsey Brown (1985) focuses on a middle-class adolescent girl in St. Louis in the late 1950s, during a time when American schools were first integrated. Betsey, the main character, is bussed to a predominantly white school, where she is confronted for the first time with racial difference. Betsey must learn to reconcile her African-American heritage with her new environment. Liliane: Resurrection of a Daughter (1994) continues Shange's pastiche style, as conversations between Liliane and her psychiatrist are interspersed with first person narratives from Liliane's lovers and friends. Shange's various books of poetry, including Nappy Edges (1978), Some Men (1981), A Daughter's Geography (1983) and Ridin' the Moon in Texas (1987), share with her dramatic plays and novels a concern with the experiences of African American women and a non-traditional use of language which captures the rhythms of Black English speech patterns.

Critical Reception

Discussion of for colored girls has revolved around the play's unique theatrical form of the "choreopoem," its use of Black English, and the politics of race and gender which it expresses. Martin Godfried praises the production for its form, theatricality and linguistic style in representing African-American experience. He writes: "The essence of the show remains its pure and perfectly captured blackness. Black language, black mannerisms, black tastes and black feelings have never been so completely and artistically presented … [t]his is truth, energy and strength, theater on the highest level, musical and choreographic to its roots." Shange's dramatic piece Spell #7 has been described by Don Nelsen as "black magic," and "a biting piece of sorcery." He proclaims the play to be "… a celebration of blackness, the joy and pride along with the horror of it. It is a shout, a cry, a bitter laugh, a sneer. It is an extremely fine theater piece." In Mother Courage, Mel Gussow affirms that Shange "has performed a venturesome feat of reinterpretation." He explains that "scene by scene, almost line by line, she has translated Brecht into a Black idiom, names, places, slang and heroine." Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo is noted by critic Doris Grumbach as a "narrative potpourri," into which Shange "tosses all the graphic elements of southern black life: wonderful recipes … spells and potions (how to rid oneself of the scent of evil), prescriptions (how to care for open wounds when they hurt), letters from Mama to her beloved but straying and erring daughters, full of calm reason and uncritical love, always advising accommodation to the hostility and blindness of the white world)." The novel is praised for its skillful use of a variety of voices representing Black English speech patterns. Reviewing Betsey Brown, Nancy Willard states that "Shange is a superb storyteller who keeps her eye on what brings her characters together rather than what separates them: courage and love, innocence and the loss of it, home and homelessness." Reviewers laud Shange's novel Liliane for its narrative form, citing consistently penetrating language and important intellectual content. A Publishers Weekly commentator praises the novel for its portrayal of the special burdens of a generation of young African Americans.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf: A Choreopoem (drama) 1975
Sassafrass (novella) 1976
Natural Disasters and Other Festive Occasions (poetry and prose) 1977
A Photograph: A Still Life with Shadows/A Photograph: A Study of Cruelty (drama) 1977; revised as A Photograph: Lovers-in-Motion, 1979
Nappy Edges (poetry) 1978
Boogie Woogie Landscapes (drama) 1979
Spell #7 (drama) 1979
Mother Courage & Her Children [adapted; from the drama Mother Courage and Her Children, by Bertolt Brecht] (drama) 1980
Some Men (poetry) 1981
Three Pieces (dramas) 1981
Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (novel) 1982
A Daughter's Geography (poetry) 1983
From Okra To Greens: Poems (poetry) 1984
See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays & Accounts (essays) 1984
Betsey Brown: A Novel (novel) 1985
Ridin' the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings (poetry) 1987
Three Views of Mt. Fuji (drama) 1987
Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter (novel) 1994

Carolyn Mitchell (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'A Laying on of Hands': Transcending the City in Ntozake's Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf," in Women Writers and the City: Essays in Feminist Literary Criticism, edited by Susan Merrill Squier, University of Tennessee Press, 1984, pp. 230-248.

[In the following essay, Mitchell discusses Shange's choreopoem in terms of how it portrays an African American woman's perspective of the city.]

Ntozake Shange's choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, presents the paradox of the modern American city as a place where black women experience the trauma of urban...

(The entire section is 7221 words.)

Carole Woddis (review date June 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Spell No. 7, in Plays and Players, No. 381, June, 1985, pp. 28-9.

[Woddis critiques a production of Ntozake Shange's play Spell No. 7 performed by the Women's Playhouse Trust.]

Ntozake Shange is nothing if not controversial. It's not so much what she is talking about, although that in itself crashes through boundaries, but the way in which she does it. Possibly not since Dylan Thomas's 'Under Milk Wood' can I remember a dramatic piece that played with language with such exuberance, and structure with such daring. 'Spell No. 7' takes risks not just because it is confronting racism and black identity in a culture dominated by the white...

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Evelyn C. White (review date November 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Growing Up Black," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 3, No. 2, November, 1985, p. 11.

[In the following book review, White praises both Jamaica Kincaid's novel Annie John and Shange's novel Betsey Brown for their representations of young African American women.]

So complementary are their titles and tan jacket covers that a precious childlike innocence seems to grace the bookshelf when Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John and Ntozake Shange's Betsey Brown sit next to each other. But these novels are not likely to spend much time on dusty shelves or in attic cartons.

With poignancy and a kind of bashful simplicity, the...

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Ntozake Shange with Brenda Lyons (interview date Winter 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Interview with Ntozake Shange," in Massachusetts Review, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1987, pp. 687-696.

[In the following interview, Lyons questions Shange about the various criticisms of her work that have been launched by feminists, and about her own perspective on the role of gender in her writing.]

[Lyons:] colored girls raised a furor in the 70s. In addition to much acclaim and many awards, you were attacked as a traitor to your race and put down as a writer and a black woman. Reflecting on that reaction now, ten years later, how do you feel about having been positioned as an angry young black feminist?

[Ntozake Shange:] I...

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Deborah R. Geis (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Distraught at Laughter: Monologue in Shange's Theatre Pieces," in Feminine Focus: New Women Playwrights, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 210-225.

[In the following essay, Geis discusses Shange's use of language as an expression of African American women's experience in her performance pieces.]

… bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma/ i havent conquered yet/ do you see the point my spirit is too ancient to understand the separation of soul & gender/ my love is too delicate to have thrown back on my face

—Ntoazke Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide /...

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Barbara Frey Waxman (essay date Fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dancing Out of Form, Dancing into Self: Genre and Metaphor in Marshall, Shange, and Walker," in Melus, Vol. 19, No. 3, Fall, 1994, p. 91-107.

[In the following essay, Waxman discusses the novels of Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, and Ntozake Shange in terms of the ways in which they incorporate dance forms and metaphors into their representations of African American women.]

Western culture has typically seen dance as an empowering activity, offering a forum for individual self-expression, or acting like a religious ritual that binds the community and spiritually renews the individual. In literature, the dance for centuries has been a conventional celebratory...

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Publishers Weekly (review date 14 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of "I Live in Music," in Publishers Weekly, November 14, 1994, p. 65.

[In the following review of "I Live in Music," the reviewer emphasizes the musical elements of the poems and makes note of the "mixed-media art" by Bearden which complements the poems.]

This galvanic fusion of poetry and mixed-media art in "I Live in Music" leads readers on a dreamy stroll though a jazz-and-blues-drenched universe, from an urban setting to a bayou, Novelist/playwright Shange provides the synaesthetic text, imagining music through all the senses: "sound / falls round me like rain on other folks / … / i cd even smell it / wear sound on my fingers." Visually...

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Laurel Elkind (review date December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter," in Boston Review, Vol. 19, December, 1994, p. 38.

[In the following review of Shange's novel Liliane, Elkind praises the way in which Shange, through her central character, "fleshes out … the complexities that Black women face in America, the divergent demands of feminism and the traditional roles of women in the Black community."]

Ntozake Shange has given us a powerful portrait of Liliane, the central character in her new novel [Liliane], Liliane is introduced immediately as a sensual, self-possessed lover and a brazen artist—"a woman who [sees] the most pristine forms, dazzling color in anythin' [and...

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Valerie Sayers (review date 1 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Life in Collage," in New York Times, Vol. CXLIV, No. 49, 928, January 1, 1995, p. 6.

[In the following review of Liliane, Sayers praises the collage structure of the narrative which combines conversations between Liliane and her psychotherapist with a first-person narrative by Liliane, her friends, and her lovers.]

Liliane Lincoln, "anybody's colored child, anybody's daughter," is raised among her mother's orchids, and her story is told in hothouse prose: Ntozake Shange's new novel, "Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter," is warm, damp and bright. The portrait of a post-modern artist whose works are political and conceptual, the novel is driven by an...

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Deirdre Neilen (review date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Liliane, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, Summer, 1995, p. 584.

[In the following review of Liliane, Neilen praises the structure of the novel, which interweaves the main character's therapy sessions with the perspectives of her friends and lovers. She emphasizes that Liliane, although subject to racism and sexism, "emerges triumphant, able to forgive and forge a future that encompasses both art and love."]

Liliane, the eponymous heroine of Ntozake Shange's third novel [Liliane], is a painter who finds her colors more often in her lovers and friends than in a paintbox. And what a rich and varied canvas they provide:...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Murray, Timothy. "Screening the Camera's Eye: Black and White Confrontations of Technological Representations." Modern Drama XXVIII, No. 1 (March, 1985): 110-124.

Essay in which Murray applies postmodern theory and film theory to discuss visual texts in terms of their representation of race. Special focus on Shange's play A Photograph.


Lester, Neal A. "At the Heart of Shange's Feminism: An Interview." Black American Literature Forum 24, No. 4 (Winter 1990): 717-30.

Interview in which Shange speaks about her ideas on...

(The entire section is 165 words.)