Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7221
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 life, yet find the strength to transcend the pain.1 The women depicted by Shange become physically and spiritually whole, thus free, through the psychic/psychological healing power that resides in the ancient, fundamentally religious act called "the laying on of hands." The believer "knows" that touch can heal if the one who touches is empowered by God; thus, touching stabilizes a person physically while freeing the troubled soul to soar spiritually.
Shange uses the physically and morally desolate cityscape as a backdrop before which to reveal her spiritual vision of female strength and survival. In this respect, therefore, colored girls differs from the legion of literary works that depict the lives of urban Afro-Americans.2 She neither denies nor romanticizes urban black experiences: the choreopoem graphically describes the complex ways in which the rape victim is further victimized by the "authorities"; it reveals the loneliness and guilt of the woman who decides to have an abortion; it details the betrayal women continue to experience in their relationships with men.3
While none of these problems is uniquely urban, they are exacerbated by the human estrangements that characterize city life. But Ntozake Shange does have a larger vision. One might think of this vision in terms of two concentric circles, with the outer circle temporarily more powerful than the other. The geographical and psychological "settings" represent one circle; the other is a fragile circle promising transcendence. The external circle is clearly discernible from the beginning; the internal is revealed slowly, growing in strength and intensity until it is the dominant one at the end. The second circle, at first a figurative one, becomes a visible, magic enclosure of women who, in joining hands, bless and heal one another while naming their own empowering female god.
Though the presence of the women in the cities cited by Shange may be a matter of exigency, the question of how to find and maintain hope in the face of despair is a crucial one. In spite of the dichotomies established between country and city and though much is made of the romance of country life, humankind has relentlessly gravitated to biblical, literary, and historical cities, the problems and pitfalls notwithstanding. To substitute the word "metropolis" for "city" sheds some light on what seems to be the primal search of all people for a centered, balanced existence. This partial explanation is valid because cities are geographically contained or "centered" entities, as opposed to the random "layout" of the country. Thus, two important ideas surface immediately from the notion of the city as a "contained entity." Paul Tillich, the theologian, offers both: the city as a "centralizing and inclusive place" and the city as a place that accepts both the "strange and the familiar."4
First, Tillich, in discussing the "centralizing and inclusive" nature of the city which, he says "influences the character of man's (emphasis mine) spiritual creativity," suggests that
we may take our point...
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of departure from the Greek wordmetropolis, signifying the mother or central city. Everything that exists has the power to be only insofar as it is centered. This is especially true of human personalities and social groups. The power of being, often called vitality, increases in proportion to the degree of diversity which is united at a center. Therefore, man has more power of being than any animal, and a spiritual man has greater vitality than a man with an underdeveloped spirituality….
In applying this ontology of the metropolis to the spiritual life of man, we find that the big city has two functions. It serves in a centralizing capacity and also in an including capacity, and each is dependent upon the other.5
According to Tillich, a "metropolis … is a center city. It is likewise an including city. It includes everything of which it is the center, and encompasses diversity and freedom of individual creativity and competition."6
Tillich uses the word "mother" to identify the genesis of the city, but the city he describes, paradoxically, is masculine.7 It is an idealized, romanticized, theoretical place where men interact, where ideas flow, where creativity flourishes, and where competition works for the good of all. This vision of the city is one which supports equality of aspiration, mobility of action, and freedom of community that women, in fact, have never known. Tillich and Shange are diametrically opposed to one another in their interpretations of the city; I shall discuss later the ways in which Tillich's idealized city is transformed by Ntozake Shange into a more realistic image. Her poem, "i usedta live in the world," is the psychological turning point in the play and is most indicative of her different view.8
"i usedta live in the world" is set in Harlem, the black city within New York City, which figures in Afro-American literature as "Mecca," "the City of Refuge," and in current vernacular as the "Big Apple."9 However, Harlem has not lived up to its promise; thus it is no surprise that one of the most powerful poems in for colored girls is located there.
The woman in blue compares the vastness of her former life in the "world" to life in Harlem where her "universe is now six blocks."
i usedta live in the world then i moved to HARLEM & my universe is now six blocks when i walked in the pacific i imagined waters ancient from accra/tunis cleansin me/feedin me now my ankles are coated in grey filth from the puddle neath the hydrant my oceans were life what waters i have here sit stagnant circlin ol men's bodies shit & broken lil whiskey bottles left to make me bleed. (28)
She juxtaposes the memory of wading in the Pacific and being washed and nurtured to the filthy water running in the city gutter. The "oceans" were life to her, which suggests the religious reading of the ocean as "Source" or God.10 In contrast, the city water, instead of cleansing, holds suspended whiskey bottles whose jagged edges threaten her life. The stagnant water also symbolically holds suspended the bodies of old men—the winos, the "flotsam and jetsam" of city humanity. These men and the water circling them form part of the gross external circle mentioned above. They are the reasons why the spiritual self/circle is such a fragile entity, for it is impossible at this point to deal with this self in the face of the threat to basic survival; the broken bottles in the hands of these men are potential murder weapons.
The poem continues, revealing "a tunnel with a train// i can ride any where// remaining a stranger" (29). The image of the tunnel/ train simultaneously suggests two meanings: the momentary enclosure necessary to arrive at a "larger" destiny/destination and the ultimate enclosure of estrangement which is the life of the stranger in the city. The city subways do reach destinations and one can "ride" them "anywhere," but, in fact, the lady in blue "rides" the subway and finds herself trapped by a twelve-year-old boy who makes sexual advances. She responds,
NO MAN YA CANT GO WIT ME/I DON'T EVEN KNOW YOU/ NO/ I DON'T WANNA KISS YOU/ YOU AINT BUT 12 YRS OLD/ NO MAN/ PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE LEAVE ME ALONE/ TOMORROW/ YEAH/ (29)
Her hysterical response and the extorted promise of a meeting tomorrow capture the fear women in the city have for their lives. Granted that the boy may not be a fully grown sexual being, but he most likely possesses a gun or a knife, clearly approved extensions of male sexuality and power. The ambiguous words, "NO/ PLEASE/ I CAN'T USE IT," suggest that this neophyte of a man, having been temporarily stalled, attempts to give or sell some trinket to the woman. This offer further belittles and objectifies the woman, who mourns the loss of her freedom metaphorically rendered in her "imagined waters." Commenting on her current life, she says, "i come in at dusk// stay close to the curb," clearly common-sense tactics for survival in the city.
The twelve-year-old on the subway becomes an urban "everyman" whose violence is contained by the "tunnel" image now suggested in the "straight up brick walls" of the city tenements. The "young man fulla his power" emerges in relief against the limp, powerless "women hangin outta windows//like ol silk stockings." The lady in blue continues:11
wdnt be good not good at all to meet a tall short black brown young man fulla his power in the dark in my universe of six blocks straight up brick walls women hangin outta windows like of silk stockings. (29)
The helter-skelter, impersonally violent life in Harlem is compared to a more gentle existence when:
I usedta live in the world really be in the world free & sweet talkin good morning & thank-you & nice day. (30)
The poem concludes, and the woman, no longer trusting, courteous, outgoing, reveals that her six-block universe is a cruel, hopeless, inhuman dead end, a closed tunnel ending the promise of freedom in the city. Life in Harlem is a cruel hoax:
i cant be nice to nobody nice is such a rip-off reglar beauty & a smile in the street is just a set-up i usedta be in the world a woman in the world i hadda right to the world then i moved to harlem for the set-up a universe six blocks of cruelty piled up on itself a tunnel closin (30-31)
The city described by Shange offers none of the characteristics idealized by Tillich. Rather than encompass diversity, it reflects the fear of racial and sexual diversity. "Individual creativity" is perverted into desperate schemes for survival. "Competition" becomes the "dog-eat-dog" syndrome, rather than the mythologized earn-and-share, secular spirituality of the marketplace. Few can discover a spiritual center in this environment. For Shange, the city must be demystified and demythologized so that the price of human survival there can be truly estimated. The paradox is that the women embody the essence of the metropolis, even though they (as black women) are doubly absent from the "defining" language.
Paul Tillich's second point is that the metropolis supports both the strange and the familiar:
The anti-provincial experience furnished by the metropolis is typified by encounters with that which is strange. Meeting the strange can have two consequences. It can produce hate against the strange, and usually against the stranger, because its existence threatens the self-certainty of the familiar. Or it can afford the courage to question the familiar. In the metropolis, it is impossible to remove the strange and the stranger, because every neighbor is mostly a stranger. Thus the second alternative of questioning the familiar ordinarily prevails….
Since the strange leads to questions and undermines familiar tradition, it serves to elevate reason to ultimate significance. If all traditions are questionable, nothing but reason is left as the way to new spiritual content. There lies the connection between the metropolis and critical rationality—between the metropolis and the intelligentsia as a social group. The importance of the encounter with the strange for all forms of the spiritual life cannot be overestimated.12
For Tillich, the "strange" and the "familiar" are separate forces that collide with one another, providing the change necessary for a dynamic spiritual life. For Ntozake Shange, the strange and the familiar are the double face of a single entity colliding with itself and with its societal counterpart. The strange/stranger is housed within the individual self and in the neighbor next door; the "familiar" has an unrecognizable "face." The orderly process by which "the strange leads to questions and undermines familiar tradition" and finally elevates "reason to ultimate significance" is absent, for, as Shange shows, the path to spiritual transcendence for the urban dispossessed is a decidedly irrational one.
The family is the traditional, familiar entity which provides the sanctuary from which the strange is questioned. Contrary to form, Shange's "family" revealed in "a nite with beau willie brown," shows how the strange and the familiar coexist as one. For example, violence is at once "strange" and "familiar," as are the ignorance, poverty, and promiscuity that preclude any possibility of Willie and his "wife," Crystal, belonging to Tillich's "intelligentsia." Willie and Crystal are the "underside," the "sewer" side of the metropolis.
"a nite with beau willie brown" is set geographically in the prototypical ghetto (Harlem is suggested to me) and psychologically in Vietnam, whereas "i usedta live in the world" is split between the geographical Harlem and a psychological place on the Pacific Ocean. The mounting tension in the play as a whole climaxes in "beau willie" because there are no pleasant mythic memories (as in the "imagined waters" of the Pacific); there are only the nightmare memories of Vietnam. Vietnam, in this context, clearly embodies the strange and the familiar simultaneously: a strange place and people, but familiar violence. The madness at the core of America is reflected in the Vietnam experience and in the fact that Beau Willie is "shellshocked" long before he reaches Vietnam. He is a young version of the old men in "i usedta live in the world." They are static, trapped in stagnant water, and Willie is like Fred Daniels in Richard Wright's short story, "The Man Who Lived Underground," who is almost swept away by the torrent of sewer water into which he has dropped while running from the police.13 One knows instinctively that Willie will not live long enough to grow static, for the aftermath of Vietnam finds him speeding to destruction. Beau Willie is the perennial stranger in American life for whom the familiar only provides additional trauma.
Tillich's familiar seems obvious in the family structure represented by Willie, Crystal, and their children Naomi Kenya and Kwame Beau Willie Brown. But Shange creates a monster in Beau Willie. He is hardly the comfortable image of the next-door-neighbor-as-stranger. Willie is ruined by the war experience, which is clearly the last in a series of psychological events that have crippled him. He is the dominant figure in the poem, but he is bound to his woman Crystal. He is a dope addict; he is paranoid. The lady in red speaks for him:
there was no air/the sheets made ripples under his body like crumpled paper napkins in a summer park/ & lil specks of somethin from tween his toes or the biscuits from the day before ran in the sweat that tucked the sheet into his limbs like he was an ol frozen bundle of chicken/ & he'd get up to make coffee, drink wine, drink water/he wished one of his friends who knew where he waz wd come by with some blow or some shit/ anythin/ there was no air/ he'd see the spotlights in the alleyways downstairs movin in the air/ cross his wall over his face/ & get under the covers & wait for an all clear or till he cd hear traffic again/ (43-44)
The words "there was no air" suggest that Willie's external and internal environment are closing in on him. Both are hostile elements because he is shell-shocked from his war experience and reacts to his urban world as if he were still under fire, as he clearly is. He is obsessed with Crystal who has been
his girl since she waz thirteen/ when he caught her on the stairway/ he came home crazy as hell/he tried to get veterans benefits to go to school & they kept right on puttin him in remedial classes/ he cdnt read wortha damn/ so beau cused the teachers of holdin him back & got himself a gypsy cab to drive/ but his cab kept breakin down/ & the cops was always messin with him/ plus not getting much bread/ & crystal went & got pregnant again/ beau most beat her to death when she tol him/ (44)
Like Richard Wright's Fred Daniels, Willie is harassed by the police. His attempt to make a living driving a cab backfires. He has no money. As I mentioned above, he is the perennial stranger; his city is the cruel, demeaning world of social ignorance, illiteracy, promiscuity, and unemployment.
Beau Willie's madness increases as the poem progresses. His "war" is complicated and Crystal is the object of his anger and hostility because her ambivalence about marrying him calls his manhood into question. For Beau, Crystal is clearly crazy because
… he just wanted to marry her/ that's what/he wanted to marry her/ & have a family/ but the bitch was crazy/ beau willie waz sittin in this hotel in his drawers drinkin coffee & wine in the heat of the day spillin shit all over hisself/laughin/bout how he was gonna get crystal to take him back/ & let him be a man in the house/ & she wdnt even have to go to work no more/he got dressed all up in his ivory shirt & checkered pants to go see crystal & get this mess all cleared up/ he knocked on the door to crystal's rooms/ & she didn't answer/ he beat on the door & crystal & naomi started cryin/ beau gotta shoutin again how he wanted to marry her/ & waz she always gonna be a whore/ or did she wanna a husband/ (46)
The poem comes to a monstrous end as Beau breaks down the door and pleads with Crystal for another chance, coaxing her to let him hold the children. Using them as hostages and holding them out of the fifth story window, Beau extorts the promise of marriage from Crystal. He urges her to "say to alla the neighbors// you gonna marry me/" (48), but she is too stunned to speak above a whisper:14
i stood by beau in the window/ with naomi reachin for me/ kwame screaming mommy mommy from the fifth story/ but i cd only whisper/ & he dropped em (48)
Though Willie is the focus of the poem, the story is, in fact, Crystal's story. Shange uses the portrait of male violence to comment on the ways in which women are robbed of life. Willie's monstrous act strips Crystal of her identity as a woman and a mother. Just as Willie is an extension of the twelve-year-old boy, she is truly the sister of the woman who tells her story in "i usedta live in the world." She is also the symbolic sister of all the women who speak in and identify with the play. The extremity of her life mirrors the worst that can happen to a woman's dreams and aspirations. Through Crystal's story Shange reveals the inner circle mentioned above. Having broken down the city and its female inhabitants to their most elemental level, and, having redefined the conventional interpretations of the strange and the familiar offered by Tillich, Shange re-creates a picture more faithful to the irrational forces that have traditionally shaped female lives and female spirituality.
The name Crystal is interesting, for Willie is truly addicted to her as if she were indeed heroin. He cannot live with or without her and what should be the sanctuary of a love relationship instead "inspires" him to brutality. On the other hand, Crystal's name suggests the clarity and purity of the vision of the city of God:
Then he showed me the river of the water of life, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the city's streets.15
To understand the dual role that Crystal plays is to understand the quantum leap from "a nite with beau willie brown" to the last poem, "a layin on of hands," for her reality is grounded both in the gross world of Willie and the ghetto and in the spiritual vision of the women she represents. Her tragedy insures the transcendence of the women for her tears are like the waters of the biblical river.
The fragile inner circle that represents the spiritual is first apparent in the title and is alluded to throughout the choreopoem. The promise of transition from despair to hope is revealed in the words of lady in brown, "& this is for colored girls who have considered suicide// but moved to the ends of their own rainbows" (3). The first "community" mentioned in the play is one composed of "colored girls who have considered suicide." Suicide, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual, is a dominant factor in modern life; therefore, it is significant that this is the point around which the "new" community is rebuilt, for gathering together to deny suicide is a life-affirming, spiritual act. Shange says, "One day I was driving home after a class, and I saw a huge rainbow over Oakland. I realized that women could survive if we decide that we have as much right and as much purpose for being here as the air and mountains do."16 Preparation for the "layin on of hands" and the discovery of God at the end of the play begins here. Women should have the freedom to live and must claim it. The rainbow suggests the mythic covenant between God and Noah, symbolizing hope and life; it foreshadows the end when the declaration, "i found god in myself," explains why the "rainbow is enuf."
To claim the right "to be" is to confront antilife forces. This self-affirmation is the first step toward spiritual affirmation. The rainbow represents the promise of a whole life, and Shange reveals her unique vision, for she draws a new covenant when she alters the gender of God, finding "her" in self, and declaring love for "her." This "mother" god will certainly heal her battered daughters. For this reason, too, Crystal's loss of her children is significant; the rules of patriarchy which allow mother and children to be held hostage must be rewritten.17
The sisterhood revealed at the conclusion of the play is foreshadowed in several poems about stunted male/female relationships. The poem, "pyramid," discusses the competitiveness of dating in which women are pitted against one another—primarily because men are in short supply. The man in "pyramid" "plays the field," thereby compromising the friendships of three women, but the poem ends on a positive note as the women console one another:
she held her head on her lap the laps of her sisters soakin up tears each understandin how much love stood between them how much love between them love between them love like sisters (33)
Here the women affirm the power of touch ("she held her head on her lap") and the power of sisterly love. The ambiguous use of the pronoun "her" in the first line addresses the merger of the individual woman into collective "woman," whose psyche cannot be divided by competition.
The lady in orange turns her love song into a "requiem" for her old self because she can no longer avoid her own face; she needs to "die" to be "reborn" into spiritual life and to claim her own identity:
so this is a requium for myself/ cuz i have died in a real way/ not wid aqua coffins & du-wop cadillacs/ i used to joke abt when i waz messin round/ but a real dead lovin is here for you now/ cuz i don't know anymore/ how to avoid my own face wet with my tears/ cuz i had convinced myself colored girls had no right to sorrow/ & i lived & loved that way & kept sorrow on the curb/ allegedly for you/but i did it for myself/ i cdnt stand it i cdnt stand being sorry & colored at the same time it's so redundant in the modern world (34)
In "no more love poems #3," the lady in blue deals with the accusation that black women are too emotional:
we deal wit emotion too much so why don't we go on ahead & be white then/… I'll find a way to make myself come without you/ no fingers or other objects just thot which isnt spiritual evolution cuz its empty & godliness is plenty ripe & fertile/ (35)
The definition of godliness as "plenty ripe & fertile" is a crucial turning point in female consciousness. Shange here addresses the central contradiction in Tillich's identification of the metropolis as "mother or central city," but defining its primary function as the repository of reason, when reason is the one attribute women are accused of lacking. The fecundity of women's emotions with their life-giving and life-sustaining properties is juxtaposed to "thot (though)// which isn't spiritual evolution cuz its empty." The words "plenty ripe & fertile" echo at the end of the play, for the bonding of the women suggests the female fertility cults of old.
In "no more love poems #4," the lady in yellow makes the essential link between worldly and spiritual love:
but 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 (36)
At the end of these poems, the ladies celebrate the beauty and energy of their love, lifting it above romantic trivialization. To disavow the "separation of// soul & gender" prefigures the female god, both as human woman claiming her place and as "god the mother." Of the many lines the women sing to describe the significance of their love, the most telling is chanted by the lady in purple: "my love is too sanctified to have thrown back on my face" (36), which places absolute value on human love and prefigures the sanctified holy love implicit in the laying on of hands.
Crystal, then, is the woman whose specific tragedy is an adumbration of all female tragedy. She is the victim who is overwhelmed, at least momentarily, by the fury of the madman. Through Crystal, each woman discovers the hope in herself, with "all the gods comin into me// laying me open to myself" (49). Each woman now understands what the lady in red means when she says "i waz missin somethin" (49). The lady in blue declares that what is missing is "not a man" (50). And the lady in purple is clear that it is neither her mother, nor motherhood that is missing:
not my mama/ holdin me tight/ sayin I'm always gonna be her girl not a layin on of bosom & womb a layin on of hands the holiness of myself released (50)
The lady in red considers suicide:
I sat up one night walkin a boardin house screaming/ cryin/ the ghost of another woman who waz missin what i was missin i wanted to jump outta my bones & be done wit myself leave me alone & go on in the wind it was too much (50)
She is split into two beings, but this confrontation with self (strange and the familiar) is the point at which healing and renewal begins:
i fell into a numbness til the only tree i cd see took me up in her branches held me in the breeze made me dawn dew that chill at daybreak the sun wrapped me up swingin rose light everywhere the sky laid over me like a million men i waz cold/ i waz burnin up/ a child & endlessly weavin garments for the moon wit my tears (50)
The concrete landscape of the city with its occasional tree—unremarkable, lone, bare, struggling for survival in an environment indifferent or hostile to it—unfolds here. The lady in red "fell into a numbness" that, paradoxically, is relieved through the life-giving properties of the tree. Adrienne Rich suggests that the tree "is a female symbol," and is sacred.18 Shange's tree is the sacred "mother," and her branches loving, cradling arms. The tree connects symbolically with Crystal as the final arbiter for the women, an idea that is enhanced by these words from Revelation, "On either side of the river stood a tree of life …, the leaves of the tree[s] serve for the healing of nations" (22:2).
The sun embraces the lady in red and "the sky laid over [her] like a million men." Shange alludes to the classical notion of the sky as male principle and the break with "earthly" men makes realignment with nature's balance possible. Through the images of hot and cold, she re-creates the fever associated with childhood, and prepares the way for rebirth. Female affinity and empathy with the moon are suggested in the image of one "endlessly weavin garments for the moon// with my tears." All the cosmic forces come together here as a unifying and healing whole.
The lines from the end of "no more love poems #4" provide a context for the discovery of God. The lady in yellow says:
do you see the point my spirit is too ancient to understand the separation of soul & gender/ (36)
These lines suggest that body (gender) and soul cannot be separated; thus the woman knows wholeness. The final words of the lady in red contain the triumph of all the women, for she is finally and fully centered as she says, "i found god in myself/ & i loved her fiercely." The identification of God as female is one of the most problematic points in the play, for it redefines the image of God. But Shange truly understands what it means to be created in the image of God, for discovery of self is discovery of God. This is a declaration of freedom from a patriarchial god who supports the men from whom the women have split.
The poem, "a layin on of hands," suggests a specially formed community which has grown from the brokenness of life in the city. Crystal reminds me of Revelation, but the connection between her transcendence and that found in colored girls is that Shange's triumphant city is not the product of an apocalyptic vision, but is the result of new sight, for the physical metropolis remains unchanged. As Denise Levertov in her poem, "City Psalm," says,
Nothing was changed, all was revealed otherwise; not that horror was not, not that the killings did not continue, not that I thought there was to be no more despair, but that as if transparent all disclosed an otherness that was blesséd, that was bliss.I saw Paradise in the dust of the street.
Levertov's image of the "transparent all" echoes the moment of crystal purity, which is the moment of revelation that "disclosed/ an otherness. "It is "in the dust of the street" that Shange's women suffer and grow in knowledge of the "strangeness of the familiar." It is their immersion in this paradoxical reality which forces them to confront themselves and which prepares them to have a dynamic spiritual vision. The women simply could not have been reborn had they not been cleansed and bound together by these unique experiences. They are not ghouls, children of horror, the joke, animals, or crazy people. They no longer need "somebody/anybody" to sing their song. They are no longer scattered half-notes.20 But they differ radically from the idealized city beings hypothesized by Tillich. Through the life-enhancing hope of the rainbow, they form a covenant with a woman-God. They are "new" and now sing their own "righteous gospel." The laying on of hands is validated in the "holiness of myself released" (50). The women enter into a tightly wrought circle, symbolic of their spiritual vision and their earthly solidarity. This is the second, "inner" circle mentioned above, which is in tension throughout the play with the external circle. Here, the power and meaning of the inner circle are fully revealed. And the lady in brown dedicates the moment:
this is for colored girls who have considered suicide/but are movin to the ends of their own rainbows (51)
1. Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf (New York: Macmillan, 1977). All citations are from this edition and are given in the text parenthetically. Shange does not use punctuation in a conventional way. Thus, the double slash (//) is used in my text to indicate the end of line of poetry since Shange uses the single (/) throughout the choreopoem as a poetic device.
The term "choreopoem" is used in my text as a synonym for the word "play." This is Shange's word and is found on the title page of her book. It reflects Shange's intent that the play be understood as a choral recitation of poems upon which limited dramatic form has been imposed.
2. The cities have been repositories of promise for blacks migrating from rural to urban America. They have sought economic and political freedom, psychological and cultural autonomy. During the first two decades of the twentieth-century southern black people, seeking to escape white violence and economic disaster, migrated to the North. The traditional myth of opportunity in the North was enhanced by national preparations for World War I and the hope for employment in the emerging defense industries. The promise of safety and a better economic life is usually seized upon by analysts as the sole interest of the emigrating black masses, but Alain Locke, editor of the anthology The New Negro (New York: Atheneum, 1970), 6, suggests in the title essay that the black peasant was inspired by a newly emerging and more complex vision:
The tide of Negro migration, northward and cityward, is not to be fully explained as a blind flood started by the demands of war industry coupled with the shutting off of foreign migration, or by the pressure of poor crops coupled with increased social terrorism in certain sections of the South and Southwest. Neither labor demand, the boll-weevil nor the Ku Klux Klan is a basic factor, however contributory any or all of them may have been. The wash and rush of this human tide on the beach line of the northern city centers is to be explained primarily in terms of a new vision of opportunity, of social and economic freedom, of a spirit to seize, even in the face of an extortionate and heavy toll, a chance for the improvement of conditions. With each successive wave of it, the movement of the Negro becomes more and more a mass movement toward the larger and more democratic chance—in the Negro's case a deliberate flight not only from countryside to city, but from medieval America to modern.
These migration patterns continued until the 1970s, when many black people, inspired by the gains of the civil rights movement, retraced the steps of their ancestors back to the South. However, since the original migrations were to the North, life in northern cities is the focus of many 20th-century Afro-American writers. Authors such as James Weldon Johnson. Rudolph Fisher, Wallace Thurman, Jessie Fauset, to name a few early writers of the decade, and more modern, perhaps better-known writers such as Langston Hughes, Richard Wright. James Baldwin, Ann Petry, Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks depict the Afro-American urban experience.
3. The first two poems mentioned here are "latent rapists' [sic] (12-16), "abortion cycle #1" (16-17). Most of the poems in for colored girls deal in some way with betrayal, but this is the specific theme of "no assistance" (10), and "somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff" (39-41).
4. Paul J. Tillich, "The Metropolis: Centralizing and Inclusive," and "The Strange and the Familiar in the Metropolis," in The Metropolis in Modern Life, ed. Robert Moore Fisher (New York: Doubleday, 1955), 346-47. Shange identifies the "familiar" cities, but establishes the women as "strangers." For example, the characters in the play do not have "proper names," except in poems where she creates a story within a story; the women are "named" by the colors they wear, suggesting anonymity. They are placed outside the cities: the lady in red, "I'm outside baltimore"; the lady in blue, "I'm outside manhattan," etc.
5. Ibid., 346.
6. Ibid., 346-47.
7. Tillich's lalanguage is exclusively masculine. His central image is power; his primary example of power is the pope and the Roman Catholic Church.
8. The preceding poems interweave fascinating pictures of city landscape with the emerging consciousness of the women as they grow from late adolescence in, for example, "graduation nite" (4-7), to adult complexity in the poem entitled "one" (24-28), in which a lonely urban woman takes a stranger home to bed, but must finally face the fact that the chance encounter is not satisfying and that she is lonelier than ever at its conclusion.
9. A mentor to many of the young black artists flocking to Harlem in the twenties, described it as "one of the most beautiful and healthful sections of the city." He ended his commentary on Harlem with the following words:
I believe that the Negro's advantages and opportunities are greater in Harlem than in any other place in the country, and that Harlem will become the intellectual, the cultural, and the financial center for Negroes of the United States, and will exert a vital influence upon all Negro people.
James Weldon Johnson, "Harlem: The Culture Capital," in The New Negro, ed. Alain Locke (New York: Atheneum, 1970), 311. Johnson's words proved not to be prophetic. The promise of Harlem in the 1920s as a place where the urban dream of American blacks would come true failed and Harlem's prominence has eroded in the last two decades. It is interesting that Johnson's ideas are a secular echo of Tillich's and ironic that the diversity of the city described by Tillich is not fully realized as whites flee from areas into which black people move thereby compromising the vitality of place and creating ghettoes. Johnson's dream, therefore, cannot be realized because "the intellectual, the cultural, and the financial" are defined and controlled by white people, who remove these elements when they leave.
10. I am thinking, here, of the connection made by Jonathan Edwards, in his meditation number 77 on "Rivers" from Images or Shadows of Divine Things, "There is a wonderful analogy between what is seen in rivers, their gathering from innumerable small branches beginning at a great distance one from another in different regions … yet all gathering more and more together the nearer they come to their common end and ultimate issue, and all at length discharging themselves at one mouth into the same ocean. Here is livelily represented how all things tend to one, even to God, the boundless ocean" (The Norton Anthology of American Literature, I, ed. Gottesman, Holland, Kalstone, et al., [New York: Norton, 1979], 261).
11. In the stage directions, the other women silently enter here; their presence is a symbolic commentary on the universality of the problem.
12. Tillich, 347.
13. Richard Wright, "The Man Who Lived Underground," in Black Voices, ed. Abraham Chapman (New York: New American Library, 1968), 114-60. Shange's image of old men suspended in stagnant water is reminiscent of Wright's character who finds—literally and figuratively—all of life's potential amenities rotted or dead floating by in the sewer water. Just as I suggested that Willie and Crystal are the "sewer" side of the metropolis, so Fred Daniels's world is that of the sewer, a metaphorical commentary on the quality of Afro-American life in the city.
14. The starkness of Beau Willie's infanticide has led critics to accuse Ntozake Shange of hating men. It is my opinion that she graphically, but compassionately, depicts the inhumanity of a system that in its racist, biased indifference to life, stunts a man's aspirations, makes him a murderer, and reduces him to insanity. His time in Vietnam is the most important factor to consider in his treatment of Crystal and the children. This point is endorsed by one of the most powerful dramatic productions of the postwar Vietnam veteran's life. This play is Emily Mann's Still Life, in which Mark, the veteran, in talking of his projection of violence, identifies his wife, Cheryl, as the war casualty.
15. Revelation 22:1, New English Bible (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1971). Crystal's name also suggests the paradox of experience for the Afro-American mother that is captured in Langston Hughes's poem, "Mother to Son," in Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology, ed. Kinnamon and Barksdale (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 518.
Well, son. I'll tell you: Life for me ain't been no crystal stair. It's had tacks in it, And splinters, And boards torn up, And places with no carpet on the floor—Bare. But all the time I'se been a-climbin' on, And reachin' landin's, And turnin' corners, And sometimes goin' in the dark Where there ain't been no light. So boy, don't you turn back. Don't you set down on the steps 'Cause you finds it's kinder hard. Don't you fall now— For I'se still goin', honey. I'se still climbin', And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
16. Carol P. Christ, Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest (Boston: Beacon, 1980), 99, as quoted from Ntozake Shange, for colored girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf (original Broadway cast recording) (New York: Buddha Records, 1976), jacket notes. One of the most sensitive, cogent, and pertinent discussions of the choreopoem appears in Carol Christ's essay, '"i found god in myself … & i loved her fiercely': Ntozake Shange." Christ's analysis of for colored girls stresses the processes of self-discovery, self-healing, and spiritual transcendence. In Christ's interpretation, the truth of the "colored girls'" growth into personhood and faith overshadows the bitter commentary and misinterpretation that characterize most criticism, which is that the play "trashes" black men, and reveals things about black people that would be better left unsaid or certainly not said in public. Christ, however, does not deal with the significance of the city in the play.
17. The basis for my thoughts on patriarchy comes from Adrienne Rich, "The Kingdom of the Fathers," in Of Women Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: Norton, 1976), 56-83.
18. Ibid., 100.
19. Denise Levertov, "City Psalm," The Sorrow Dance (New York: New Directions, 1966), 72.
The Killings continue, each second pain and misfortune extend themselves in the genetic chain, injustice is done knowingly, and the air bears the dust of decayed hopes, yet breathing those fumes, walking the thronged pavements among crippled lives, jackhammers raging, a parking lot painfully agleam in the May sun, I have seen not behind but within, within the dull grief, blown grit, hideous concrete facades, another grief, a gleam as of dew, an abode of mercy, have heard not behind but within noise a humming that drifted into a quiet smile. Nothing was changed, all was revealed otherwise; not that horror was not, not that the killings did not continue, not that I thought there was to be no more despair, but that as if transparent all disclosed an otherness that was blesséd, that was bliss.I saw Paradise in the dust of the street.
20. The images in these three sentences are taken from the first poem in for colored girls entitled, "dark phases" (1-2).
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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 InformationShange 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.
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.
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.
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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 face but because it does so through a loosely knit structure that breaks conventional rules and is reliant on the monologue for its major impact. Several voices at the interval the night I was there could be heard saying 'but it's not really "a play", is it?'
Insofar as it eschews narrative, 'Spell No. 7' does not fit easily into that particular pigeon-hole. What it does do is weave a textural pattern of racial histories, memories, anecdotes, testaments, sometimes through interrelating dialogue, predominantly through personal account, creating a rich socio/cultural picture of what it means to be black—and especially female—in America—with Shange's shimmering words as the driving force.
Reading some of the script before its opening, it seemed to me that the Women's Playhouse Trust and in particular, director Sue Parrish, had bitten off more, this time, than they could chew. How could a white English director and black English cast take on the style and nuance of Shange's Americo-centric milieu. The answer is that, but for one or two weak passages, she and they have done themselves proud. These are stories that need to be told, and they tell them with conviction and vitality. Set mostly in a downtown New York bar where a group of actors and actresses are gathered, the atmosphere is set by the entrance of Erick Ray Evans (Lou), a sleek, white-suited MC, magician figure; with bitter irony, he sings of the spell that cannot be weaved—turning black skin into white—quickly joined by a black tie and tail chorus which, with equal speed, neatly subverts the comfortable white image of the jolly, black hoofer, and entertainer.
Bitterness is a theme that runs violently throughout many of the episodes later recounted—in the humiliations and indignities encountered in the segregated South; in the stereotypical images of casting limiting black actresses either to subservient maids or sassy whores, or even, most ironically as one actress (Amanda Symons) vivaciously recalls, not being cast as a black because her skin is too light. Women, Shange is saying, are doubly penalised—first by racism, twice over by sexism from black men ('oh baby, you're so pre-ee-tty'), epitomised in a wickedly funny sendup on The Platters, sung by the cast's male actors to the actresses. It is this self-mockery which saves 'Spell No. 7' from being just a catalogue of bitterness—that, the evocatory power of Shange's language and the celebratory impulse of being black to counter-balance the pain. Above all, there are performances which dig deep into the white conscience. It will be a long time before I forget Claudette Williams (a dazzling new discovery) painting a biting portrait of contempt mixed with envy conveyed in the single gesture of a young white woman 'flinging her hair'. 'Spell No. 7' does not always make comfortable viewing; its first half does indeed drag but the power of its emotional truth carries its own momentum and weaves a black magic entirely on its own.
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for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf: A Choreopoem (drama) 1975Sassafrass (novella) 1976Natural Disasters and Other Festive Occasions (poetry and prose) 1977A Photograph: A Still Life with Shadows/A Photograph: A Study of Cruelty (drama) 1977; revised as A Photograph: Lovers-in-Motion, 1979Nappy Edges (poetry) 1978Boogie Woogie Landscapes (drama) 1979Spell #7 (drama) 1979Mother Courage & Her Children [adapted; from the drama Mother Courage and Her Children, by Bertolt Brecht] (drama) 1980Some Men (poetry) 1981Three Pieces (dramas) 1981Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (novel) 1982A Daughter's Geography (poetry) 1983From Okra To Greens: Poems (poetry) 1984See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays & Accounts (essays) 1984Betsey Brown: A Novel (novel) 1985Ridin' the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings (poetry) 1987Three Views of Mt. Fuji (drama) 1987Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter (novel) 1994
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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 authors portray the growing pains of two young black girls. Kincaid, a staff writer for The New Yorker, crafts equally fetching moments of joy and sorrow for her seemingly autobiographical protagonist, Annie John. The quick prose and distinctive detail that are the hallmarks of successful short stories are often difficult to achieve in longer works. Characters and images that breathed fully on twelve pages can be found huffing and puffing at a hundred. Sometimes the only recourse is to perform a type of literary euthanasia. That Kincaid, in her first novel, does not produce one clause that tempts one to "pull the plug," is a testament both to the rich texture of her West Indian childhood and her extraordinary skill as a writer.
Banana fritters, ripe guavas and pumpkin soup color Annie's world on the lush island of Antigua. Like the blue-green tropical land-scapes of Gauguin, Kincaid's pages are brushed with images that glisten like swaying palm trees in the sunlight.
Her face was big and round and red, like a moon a red moon. She had big, broad, flat feet, and they were naked to the bare ground; her dress was dirty, the skirt and blouse tearing away from each other at one side; the red hair that I had first seen standing up on her bead was matted and tangled; her hands were big and fat, and her fingernails held at least ten anthills of dirt under them. And on top of that, she had such an unbelievable wonderful smell as if she had never taken a bath in her whole life.
Although characters like the Red Girl and Gwen, a beloved classmate, earn Annie's adoration, the singular force in her life is her mother. Their relationship is a bittersweet one that Kincaid depicts in a way that any daughter who has ever felt at odds with her mother can understand.
For example: blissful days spent in the protection of a mother graced with "such a beautiful mouth I could have looked at it forever if I had to and not mind" come to an abrupt and cataclysmic end for Annie John at age twelve, when on a shopping trip her mother tells her that they can no longer wear dresses made from the same cloth. "To say I felt the earth swept away from under me would not be going too far." This sudden and, in Annie's eyes, drastic change in the intimate bond with her mother is an episode Kincaid uses to symbolize the painful words and actions that can separate mother and daughter during the turbulent pubescent years. Annie stands among the bright bolts of cloth that had for years adorned the two of them as her mother says, "You just cannot go around the rest of your life looking like a little me." The sense of loss and abandonment is profound. From that moment on, Annie's feelings about her mother and her own identity are fraught with the confusion and rebellion that make adolescence a time few wish to relive.
The day she begins to menstruate, Annie expresses a sentiment whose accuracy makes one revel—and then despair.
I walked to school with Gwen feeling as I supposed a dog must feel when it has done something wrong and is ashamed of itself and trying to get somewhere quick, where it can lie low. The cloth between my legs grew heavier and heavier with every step I took … For the first time in my life, I fainted … Nurse said it was the fright of all the unexpected pain … but I knew that I'd fainted after I brought to my mind a clear picture of myself sitting at my desk in my own blood. (p. 52)
The "my mother/myself" currents of Annie's life reach full force when she turns fifteen. Feeling "more unhappy than I had ever imagined anyone could be," she must nonetheless go to school, go to church, and worst of all, continue to live with a mother who has "suddenly turned into a crocodile." Instead of raised voices or angrily slammed doors, Kincaid uses simple whispers to create the emotional strain of the parental relationship all adolescents (and adults too) struggle with. "When I started to walk down the road, my steps were quick and light, and as I walked these words would go around in my head: 'My mother would kill me if she got the chance. I would kill my mother if I had the courage.'"
The courage of the youthful spirit, even when it is broken or tormented, bursts like a ripe mango in Annie John. Although Kincaid touches upon the inharmonious consequences of colonization in the West Indies (Annie is punished for "defacing" a picture of Christopher Columbus), political polemics are an aside to the personal passage of a young girl.
Perhaps Kincaid's writing has less of the charged racial intensity that is often found in the works by blacks born in America because she grew up on an island filled with the culture and traditions of her ancestors. The British may well have ruled the physical earth of Antigua, but they were not masters of the heart or spirit of a people who knew that the country pulsed with their lives, deaths, history and dreams.
The black American experience is steeped in different racial configurations. Whether with her sassiness, her tenderness or her self-described "combat breath," Ntozake Shange writes about our experiences in a voice few have surpassed in recent years.
Since her debut in 1974 with the Broadway production of her magnificent choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, she has proven that she can portray black life with a depth and rhythmic cadence that make readers see, hear, smell and feel every word she writes.
Like Annie John, Betsey Brown appears to be an autobiographical work. There is much in this humorous and melodic novel that parallels Ntozake Shange's own upbringing in a prominent black family during the 1950s. Shange starts living up to her spirited literary reputation promptly. Betsey's father, a St. Louis doctor, quizzes his children each morning in a colorful ritual that includes dancing to the beat of a Conga drum. "When Jane entered the kitchen, the line of children melted into hugs and kisses good-bye to Grandma and thanks to Daddy for the extra nickel for correctly answered questions at morning drill … Betsey's word had been 'psychopath' one time and she answered, 'Mama's patients, niggahs what ain't got no sense.'"
Jane, Betsey's mother, has to deal with the demands of four children, a frolicsome husband and her own identity as a social worker. Her life is a multi-threaded fabric that, all by itself, affirms the diversity among black women. Shange's message, as I read it, is that it is as important to write about black women who set their tables with crystal as it is to support those who scrape daily for basic necessities. Through Jane, Shange claims and skillfully portrays a black female experience that has been shaped by more privileges than sacrifices. Still, the comfort of Jane's physical world does not protect her from the emotional turmoil all black women face. In Jane, Shange has drawn a full-fleshed black woman whose "chandeliers of every shape and size" do not make her personal burdens any less real.
In the midst of the crystal chandeliers and the mahogany staircase. Betsey and her siblings live the rough-and-tumble life of most children. They tease each other, fight, jump double-dutch, break dishes and get a thrill out of striking matches. But Betsey, at the cross-roads of childhood and adolescence, soon finds herself with another concern—integration. Court-ordered desegregation forces her to leave her neighborhood school and enroll in a white one. Her adolescent self-consciousness and confusion are compounded by her daily expeditions into "another country" where there are "no Twandas, Veejays and Charlotte Anns … not even any dill pickles wrapped in brown paper or candies like Mr. Robinson's."
The lengthy bus rides to and from the white school separate Betsey physically, emotionally and culturally from all that has been familiar. After missing an outing with her neighborhood friends because of a late bus, Betsey takes out her frustrations on the sidewalk.
The street was vacant. Like a big old movie set. Nothing. Nobody to do a thing with. What could she do alone that could exclude the white folks, who were nowhere to be seen except in her wounds and aches of memories. Betsey decided to play hop-scotch, but she laid the hop-scotch pattern out with enough room to write 'For Colored Only,' 'Crackers and Dogs Not Allowed,' 'Peckerwoods Got No Welcome Here,' 'Guineas Go Home.' Betsey's hop-scotch was something to behold. Chalk never seemed so powerful as when it messed with white folks. (p. 112)
Although Shange writes candidly about racial and class conflicts, Betsey Brown is about the human emotions that unify people as well as the political forces that divide. It is a book about love, loss, fear, courage, about learning how to live in a world where certain people just might not like dill pickles.
After major successes in their "adult" voices, Ntozake Shange and Jamaica Kincaid have chosen to express themselves through the eyes and hearts of young black girls. These novels will do much to enrich and provide counterpoint to an already sumptuous body of black women's literature. After all, once upon a time Sula, Shug Avery and the women of Brewster Place were all little black girls happily chanting "Little Sally Walker, sitting in a saucer."
"Innocent" and "fragile" are words that are used all too rarely to describe black women. Now, perhaps, because of Annie John and Betsey Brown, those words too will be used whenever there is mention of "the strong black woman"—as well they should be.
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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 think it's O.K. to have been what I was. I'm not sure that I'm still not.
Has it affected your writing?
I think on a couple of things I got very pointedly satirical about people, for example in "Just Like a Man," at about that time. There are some things in Sassafras that are about that, too, where I can make fun of sexism, misogynists…. It's like creating a world of women that's woman-centered, so aberrant male forms really look aberrant.
Some women have criticized Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo as homophobic.
I'm not absolutely certain, but I'm pretty sure that's not true. There used to be a phalanx of feminists who were as difficult to deal with as some misogynists. I used to think twice about whether I was going to see a man. I lost a job because I was heterosexual. It wasn't that I lost it; I wasn't ever given it, and that was the primary reason. So I wanted to point out that when you're seeking love and companionship, you can't just say, well, this is a sexist society and men are the enemy, therefore I'm gonna seek women. Because that's not going to save you. I think I was trying to be honest about the gay community. There are a lot of people who are not honest in their relationships with people. I think the relationship between Idrina and her girlfriend is perfectly fine. They don't have a problem. I figured that was gonna happen and I didn't really care because I was saying what I had to say. It's the same as black people who didn't want to hear about things that didn't look absolutely perfect. The characters in Sassafras did say awful things and trash one another, but there are people who do. In the time of the Sassafras narrative certain women's collectives existed that were very dramatic and people had a lot of lovers. We didn't even call it promiscuity. It was very different from the environment today. People today sit down and think about how they really want to be monogamous. It was not anybody's goal fifteen years ago.
Is there a link between the title Colored Girls and the change in language to "people of color"?
I know that fifteen years ago when I said "colored girls" I meant "people of color." The first group I worked with was black, white, Asian, and native American. And in San Francisco that's what we meant. It was our own little tongue-in-check thing. When I moved back East, they couldn't deal with that. It was too difficult. "Color" meant "black people," so that's what it became, but syntactically and in terms of what's in the piece itself that's not true. I think now when you say "people of color" that's another way of saying "colored girls" but getting away from the trap I fell into. I don't think we did anything to stir it on, but I think that's what we meant.
Betweencolored girlsand Betsey Brown I read a movement away from radical feminist politics—although I don't like the word "feminist"—toward what seems a return to family-centered values.
Well, I don't know how to get outta there. I have to create a world that a feminist can come from. You see, I didn't have any books I could read where I could see a child who was actually trying to come in from—a book of different women's perspectives of the world AND different politics—so I thought it was important to create a person who could do that and say, yes, these things are possible. Feminists don't start up at twenty-one and know the correct way. It's something that all of us can reach toward, and it's something that's available to any little girl or little boy. It's something you have to come to, and you have to come from someplace to get it. That's one of the problems I have with family. You're right. When I was writing Betsey Brown I thought I was gonna go crazy, because I had to see the world from a thirteen-year-old girl's point of view. It was absolutely crazy. I thought it was horrible. And it was just so good and clean and asexual, I couldn't stand it. Several months after I finished it I started the next novel, which is incredibly sexual. I guess Liliane, the protagonist, is an existential feminist. I don't know, she's one of these full-sided ones, like what I was talkin' about—the feminist who sprung up at twenty-one from Zeus's head, from her father's head. I had to have a change from Betsey. A friend said. "You finally got tired of all that menarche," and I said, "You're right, I couldn't stand it." So yeah, it's almost—I was reading some of it the other day and I said, "Oh, my god, you must have been terribly, terribly horny," because it's not quite explicitly sexual, but it's loose and wild, that's for sure. So I am coming back to what I feel more comfortable in. But Betsey Brown was something I just had to do, because it was too pretty a story to let go…. Liliane is, yes, related to the Bible and to Minerva.
What's the relationship between Betsey and Indigo from Sassafras?
I've thought about that, because the only other time I wrote about children I wrote about Indigo. Indigo has a history and spiritual forces that support her and that she's in touch with without having to be told she has the right. Except for her contact with Uncle John and the women from the church, she doesn't really have a whole lot of conflict going on in her immediate family the way Betsey does. So they're different in that sense. Indigo has a knowing sense of what's possible and who she can be. We discover with Betsey what her possibilities are, which is different. I think, from Indigo giving us permission to share what she already knows.
Indigo seems more magical.
Yeah, that's what I mean. I didn't want to use that word, because I didn't want to make her like an other-worldly person. But she is in contact with spiritual forces that have been disrupted in Betsey's life. For instance, Indigo thinks she hears and sees the slaves in the bottom of the cock-fighting place, and Betsey has to be told about these things. She only hears the drums in something that's very abstract, very different from coming in contact with ghost slaves.
Do you think of your audience as you write?
I think I always see a young child or an adolescent of color, but not necessarily right this minute. I started writing because there's an absence of things I was familiar with or that I dreamed about. One of my senses of anger is related to this vacancy—a yearning I had as a teenager. I hate that word. But as an adolescent—to have done something that I didn't have and I didn't know what it was 'cause I had never heard about it. I knew some of the Harlem Renaissance people, and Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright and Leroi Jones and Margaret Walker, and that was about it. And I thought there was a searching and yearning going on in me, as a teenager, and when I get ready to write I think I'm trying to fill that and I can't quite give you a name and place and date of birth of this child I'm writing to. There was a collection of poetry to do with refugee children called Children of the Sun a decade or so ago or longer. A lot of those children will never get a chance to tell how our life was. And I want to have something here for the next batch of kids who come along. I don't want them to come into a world unannounced, with no past, with nothing to hold onto. I can't stand children's books. I want something ready for when they hit eighteen or twenty or when they're forty-five and they still haven't ever heard about themselves. I want to recreate and save what our being alive has been so their being will stay alive, won't be such a surprise.
Does sexism operate differently in the black and white literary communities?
Yeah, I think so. I think unless black women are writing the pieces, we're being left out the same way we used to be left out of literature. We don't appear in things unless we write them ourselves. In the white male literary establishment women attain what looks like positions of power or influence or economic stability, but they're structured in such a way that they become unthreatening.
Do you know the piece by Calvin Hernton called "The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers"?
No. I know Calvin.
Well, in this article he identifies a black feminist perspective in contemporary Afro-American literature, and consistent with that perspective, an aesthetic. As he puts it, "form, language, syntax, sequence, and metaphoric rendering of experience that's different and expansive compared to male-authored literature." Do you agree?
Yeah, I do.
What does that mean in terms of your literary work?
As far as we know, in my fiction the plot is not going forward. It undulates, I hope. And I hope it has more to do with the flow of rivers and streams and tides and lakes, because I relate to life more completely in that way and it feels more real to me. If I'm dealing with somebody who is having daydreams or whose life takes place in sequences that are arranged in terms of importance to her, she recreates history only insofar as she tells us what she experienced, given where she was and who she was at that time, to the best of her ability, and that makes her life valid to me. So I think there are certain risks that I've been taking in terms of the way I choose to present and develop my pieces. If they're juxtaposed to traditional expectations of novels…. I keep telling people that the meaning of the word "novel" is "new," but for some reason people still seem to think that they should know how to read this or they should feel at ease immediately with this. That's crazy, because when you meet new people you can't do that. You can't just fall into somebody's life and be done with them in a few days or three hours of reading. It just doesn't make sense. Because you can't learn somebody's personal imagery and their personal iconography that quickly. I think Calvin is probably right. If I was gonna give a physical metaphor. I think that women's novels for me are more like breathing and men's novels are more like running.
Do you think black women's writing is different?
I've been reading a lot of books by women this year. Not all novels so much, but a lot of J. California Cooper and June Jordan and Toni Morrison and others. J. is a storyteller and short story writer and playwright in Oakland; June is a political poet from Stonybrook, and she wrote an incredible essay that's been the spark of life to me. I find ours to be more colloquial and rooted in folklore and embedded in the politics of the family in a way almost as mythology, a more readily approachable mythology than white feminist books are to me. I don't know if it's because our lives are incredible and when we see it on paper we're astonished and so raise the characters themselves to a mythological level, or if it's in the writing. I have a feeling it's a little of both. Because a lot of white feminists—I hate that word, too—are from working-class backgrounds and their novels seem to take on the whole town and the company. In most black novels—I don't know if it's because we're left out of the industrial, technological process or because it's the way we choose to see the world—our personalities and our interpersonal reactions and relationships and our relations as solitary figures with the universe seem paramount to me in a way they don't seem when I read novels by people who are not of color.
You've produced work in several, and sometimes overlapping, genres—dramatic performance pieces, poetry, short stories, and the novel. Do you feel closest to or strongest in any one of them?
It really has a lot to do with my own psychological path. Each piece has tended to give me what I emotionally needed at that point in time in terms of how I was going to deal with my work and what my work would give back to me. When I need to be by myself and not talk to a lot of other people about what I'm doing, I write novels. I left here [Houston] to write novels on purpose because I simply could not stand talkin' to other people. I could not stand it—and then—writing novels is terribly terribly lonely-and so I had to go back—so I could be interacting with other people. I used to think that theater—by which I mean institutionalized theater, not performance pieces—was terribly alien to me. It was something that fell upon me as opposed to me falling upon it … because I had been quite happy with my pieces when they were on East 3rd Street, and having to deal with people who were looking to go The Great White Way had never occurred to me. But it HAD occurred to me to write novels and poems. So I have created a distance between myself as a theatrical writer and myself as a poet.
I just read and really like"Aw baby you so pretty" …
Yeah, I liked that one, too, and I like being in the pieces that I like. I like being on stage, so that's why this year I'm doing a lot more acting in other people's work than I have before. This year I'm gonna do Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in New Orleans and I'm gonna do a piece of my own in San Francisco, a stage version of a short story I wrote called "Melissa & Smith."
I'd been trying to find"Melissa & Smith" …
It was a chapbook from Bookslinger Press in Minneapolis. It was really pretty—all handmade paper. Those are the things I wanted when I dreamed about being a writer. I wanted beautiful chapbooks. I just wanted books. I never ever thought about anything but having books, and so I think I'm much more, well, now it's changed a little because I get fuller gratification from actual performance. I did that as a poet, too. But I'm getting it from being an actress now. I really feel a great sense of accomplishment and pride and satisfaction after a piece in a show, which I didn't used to have.
Can you talk about what you're working on now? Plans for forthcoming writing?
Yeah, I'm working on the novel about Liliane, and she's very exciting to me because she IS a grown woman and she's worldly and politically committed and she's very sensually alive and she encounters people and events who make history. For that reason she's very, very sacred in a different way, say, that's for me not depressive. 'Cause Sassafras in a sense IS history and Liliane is in a process of making it, but in a very unselfconscious way. I hope. Because she's so vitally committed to experiencing herself and having those experiences impact on the world around her that she doesn't really leave us thinking that she is wanting for too much or that she's unable to fend for herself. She's a real challenge to write about and, on the other hand, real gratifying, because more often than not she gets what she wants. And if it's not what she wants she figures out in some kinda way that that was enough. [Laughter] And she moves on to the next thing. She's a person who uses the information she has within her power as a woman to make her life and the lives of those people around her better. But she's not a holy roller, and she's not Mother Teresa. She's a very worldly, sophisticated person.
To what extent are your characters autobiographical? That's an age-old question, and not a very popular one now either, but….
Six o' one, half a dozen o' the other. Some people, some characters just come out of the clear blue sky—the unknown, the unconscious—the other six are modeled on people I've known in life. There are some things that are facsimiles of reality—either hearsay or direct experience that has been reformed—in the psyches of my characters. And then there's some information that just comes out of the clear blue sky. A lot of it is what I call "terror thinking"—which would be transcription of nightmares or daydreams that are fiendish—and/or "wish thinking," which would be a transcription of events that I wish would happen instead of what did happen. And so I make it real for myself by writing. But when I write it I know it's not for me; it's for this character in there. So that distances it, and it becomes non-autobiographical for me. Once I've adjusted something so that it fits a character it's no longer autobiographical, because its … hell, because if it's autobiographical, I couldn't have fixed it [laughing].
Do you have childhood memories of Miles or Dizzy or DuBois or …?
Yeah, I do. I remember when Dizzy Gillespie came to our house in St. Louis. He used to come visit us a lot, whenever he came through town. And at that point in time, St. Louis and Nashville and Chicago had a real strong rhythm and blues and jazz circuit. He gave me my first horn—my first cornet that was designed like his. I'll never forget that. And one time my father took us to see where Miles Davis was staying. It was in a black hotel in town, and I saw him in the lobby and I heard him whisper that horny whisper….
Yeah, really … and DuBois, I remember. I was too young to remember Paul Robeson coming to dinner, except that he had this incredible sense of humor about him. I remember this big brown man that looked sort of like my dad, who was with us in the dining room at dinner time. Vague things like that. I remember when Walter White came and they had a cocktail party. I used to sit up on the stairway in the front of the house and watch the people come in and I could listen to the talk going on in the back. I remember the night Walter White came because the people from the NAACP had a raffle. He was one of the very important civil rights leaders of the 40s and early 50s, and he was very, very light-skinned, so he could get into tense situations with the Klan or where there were riots going on or where there was discrimination, and see for himself and the NAACP exactly what was going on.
When passing was a necessity….
Uh huh. He was a very, very brilliant man and a lot of his articles are in The Crisis magazine.
What about DuBois?
I remember him because my mother used to talk to me about him all the time. And he apparently was a very crotchety man. Really. He didn't like children. That's what my mother said. He didn't like children. And for some reason he liked me. The way the story goes, Dr. DuBois took me upstairs and put me to sleep one night, which everybody thought was amazing, because he wasn't supposed to like babies. So I heard about him forever after that. And then, of course, Cesar Chavez used to be at our house. My father—we used to raise money for the grape strike. And Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson….
How did your father know all these people?
My father was a ring physician and rodeo physician or any other kind of sports physician. He also worked in a huge public hospital. If there were fights or knifings in night clubs—black night clubs—the black people got sent to the black hospitals. And so when anybody got shot or knifed, whether they were famous or not, they would go to this black hospital, and that's where he was doing his residency. So we met a lot of people that way.
Do you remember Robeson's voice?
Yeah, I remember his laugh. What I remember is conversation at dinner that seemed to be very vital, and a big … just an incredible presence.
Is there anything you'd like to tell your contemporary readers?
Oh, I know, One of the things that's been bothering me most is the homogenizing of language. Of contemporary English. And I've been feeling that the power of the language that black and Latin and women writers, who are exploring and unleashing in the last decade, is being encroached upon in a very serious way. For instance, on the news last night there was a fire and eight people died and one pregnant woman. But instead of saying "one pregnant woman" the newscaster said "one pregnant woman and one unborn child." That's a very dangerous use of language. And an obsessive use of language. It's something that we are exposed to in a steady, innocuous drone and it then will become part of someone's psyche in a way that multiplies in terrifying leaps and bounds. Another thing, for instance, is that every major soap opera right now, in Dallas and Dynasty—as soon as the word "abortion" is mentioned the female characters spend weeks having guilt and terror about having an abortion. See, this gives the wrong idea that you can take weeks to do this. And you can't. Also, we don't have to spend weeks being terrorized about it. Those are two things. And the other is this murder that went on at Howard Beach when the crowd of white people went running around. What happened is—in one newscast they said that white youths of sixteen and seventeen did something. Right. And the following local news report about a local 7-11 robbery—a black man of sixteen did something. So I think we not only have to begin to take very seriously what's presented to us, but we have to take very seriously how our written language—the word on the page—has alerted the powers that be that these ideas—that these people have been suggesting—must be stopped. Therefore, we will not discuss it the way they discuss it.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
That no matter what—and I have to give this to myself, too, every once in a while I have real problems, a really severe writer's block—that no matter what happens, never think it's not worth-while. And never be afraid, whatever it is, that it's too beautiful or too terrible to tell.
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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 feminism in her life and works.
――――――. "An Interview with Ntozake Shange." Studies in American Drama 5 (1990): 42-66.
Interview in which Shange discusses her form of the "choreopoem," her use of language in terms of gender, and her writing process.
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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 / when the rainbow is enuf
Ntozake Shange's works defy generic classifications: just as her poems (published in Nappy Edges and A Daughter's Geography) are also performance pieces, her works for the theater defy the boundaries of drama and merge into the region of poetry. Her most famous work, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, is subtitled "a choreopoem." Similarly, she has written Betsey Brown as a novel and then again (with Emily Mann) in play form, and her first work of fiction, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, is as free with its narrative modes—including recipes, spells, letters—as Joyce was in Ulysses. Perhaps more so than any other practicing playwright, Shange has created a poetic voice that is uniquely her own—a voice which is deeply rooted in her experience of being female and black, but also one which, again, refuses and transcends categorization. Her works articulate the connection between the doubly "marginalized" social position of the black woman and the need to invent and appropriate a language with which to articulate a self.
In their revelation of such a language, Shange's theatrical narratives move subtly and forcefully between the comic and the tragic. A brief passage from for colored girls underscores the precarious path between laughter and pain which Shange's characters discover they are forced to tread:
distraught laughter fallin over a black girl's shoulder it's funny/it's hysterical the melody-less-ness of her dance don't tell nobody, don't tell a soul she's dancin on beer cans & shingles
The images associated with the word hysterical in this passage show the multilayered and interdependent qualities of the "black girl's" experience: hysterical connotes a laughter which has gone out of control, a madness historically—if not accurately—connected with femaleness. Moreover, the admonition "don't tell nobody, don't tell a soul" suggests the call to silence, the fear that to speak of her pain will be to violate a law of submission. The onlooker will aestheticize the dance or call attention to its comic qualities rather than realize the extent to which the dance and the laughter are a reaction against—and are even motivated by—the uncovering of pain.
The key here is the complexity, for Shange, of the performative experience. In her plays, especially for colored girls and spell #7, Shange develops her narration primarily through monologues because monologic speech inevitably places the narrative weight of a play upon its spoken language and upon the performances of the individual actors. But she does not use this device to develop "character" in the same fashion as Maria Irene Fornes and other Method-inspired playwrights who turn toward monologic language in order more expressively to define and "embody" their characters both as women and as individuals. Rather, Shange draws upon the uniquely "performative" qualities of monologue to allow her actors to take on multiple roles and therefore to emphasize the centrality of storytelling to her work. This emphasis is crucial to Shange's articulation of a black feminist aesthetic (and to the call to humanity to accept that "black women are inherently valuable")2 on two counts. First, the incorporation of role-playing reflects the ways that blacks (as "minstrels," "servants," "athletes," etc.) and women (as "maids," "whores," "mothers," etc.) are expected to fulfill such roles on a constant basis in Western society.3 Second, the space between our enjoyment of the "spectacle" of Shange's theater pieces (through the recitation of the monologues and through the dancing and singing which often accompany them), and our awareness of the urgency of her call for blacks/women to be allowed "selves" free of stereotypes, serves as a "rupturing" of the performance moment; it is the uncomfortableness of that space, that rupture, which moves and disturbs us.
In "takin a solo/ a poetic possibility/ a poetic imperative," the opening poem of Nappy Edges, Shange argues that just as the great jazz musicians each have a recognizable sound and musical style, so too should the public develop a sensitivity to the rhythms and nuances of black writers and that the writers themselves should cultivate "sounds" which distinguish them as individuals. She writes:
as we demand to be heard/we want you to hear us, we come to you the way leroi jenkins comes or cecil taylor/ or b.b. king, we come to you alone/ in the theater/ in the story/ & the poem, like with billie holiday or betty carter/ we shd give you a moment that cannot be recreated/ a specificity that cannot be confused, our language shd let you know who's talkin, what we're talkin abt & how we cant stop sayin this to you, some urgency accompanies the text, something important is going on, we are speakin, reachin for yr person/ we cannot hold it/ we don't wanna sell it/ we give you ourselves/ if you listen.4
Although Shange's remarks were intended to address the larger issue of Afro-American writing, her words hold true for the speakers of monologue in her plays as well, for the monologue is another way of "takin a solo." For Shange's actors/characters (it is sometimes difficult to draw the distinction between the two, as the actors frequently portray actors who in turn portray multiple characters), monologues issue forth with the same sense that "some urgency accompanies the text" and that, in delivering the speeches, they are "reachin for yr person." In this respect the characters seem to aspire toward a specificity which would make them stand as if independent of their author. But the hallmark of the very "imperative" which Shange has announced in the first place is the unmistakable sense that all of the speakers' voices are ultimately parts of one voice: that of Shange, their creator and the play's primary monologist or storyteller.
All of Shange's theatrical pieces, even a photograph: lovers in motion and boogie woogie landscapes, unfold before the audience as collections of stories rather than as traditionally linear narratives; the events are generated less from actual interactions as they unfold in the "present" of the play (except perhaps in a photograph) than from the internal storytellers' recreations of individual dramas. The implied privilege of the storyteller to create alternate worlds, as well as the fluidity of the stories themselves and the characters in them, relies heavily upon the immense power that African and Afro-American tradition have assigned to the spoken word. According to James Hatch, Africans traditionally believe that "words and the art of using them are a special power that can summon and control spirit."5 Furthermore, as Geneviève Fabre explains in Drumbeats Masks and Metaphor:
The oral tradition holds a prominent place in Afro-American culture. For slaves (who were often forbidden to learn to write) it was the safest means of communication. It provided basic contact with Africa as a homeland and a source of folklore, a contract also between ethnic groups unified under a common symbolic heritage, between generations, and finally, between the speaker and his audience…. Because the oral tradition has long remained a living practice in Afro-American culture, the dramatic artist has been tempted to emulate not only the art and techniques of the storyteller, but also his prestigious social function—that of recording and reformulating experience, of shaping and transmitting values, opinions, and attitudes, and of expressing a certain collective wisdom.6
Shange takes the notion of exchange and collectivity among storytellers even further in her use of the space in which her pieces are performed. Monologue creates "narrative space"; Shange depends upon the power and magic of the stories within her plays to create the scenes without the use of backdrops and other "theatrical" effects, for colored girls is the most "open" of the plays in this sense, as it calls for no stage set, only lights of different colors and specific places for the characters to enter and exit. boogie woogie landscapes conjures up the mental images of the title within the confines of Layla's bedroom: "there is what furniture a bedroom might accommodate, though not too much of it, the most important thing is that a bedroom is suggested."7 Although the sets of both spell #7 and a photograph are fairly specific (a huge minstrel mask as a backdrop and, later, a bar in lower Manhattan for the former; a photographer's apartment for the latter), they still call for this space to be reborn in different imaginary ways as the characters come forth and tell their stories.
for colored girls, Shange's first major theater piece, evolved from a series of poems modeled on Judy Grahn's Common Woman. The play received its first performances in coffeehouses in San Francisco and on the Lower East Side of Manhattan: eventually, it attracted critical and public attention and moved to the New Federal Theater, the Public Theater, and then to Broadway in 1976. for colored girls draws its power from the performances—in voice, dance, and song—of its actors, as well as from the ways it articulates a realm of experience which heretofore had been suppressed in the theater; the "lady in brown" speaks to the release of this suppression when she says near the beginning of the piece:
sing a black girl's song bring her out to know her self … she's been dead so long closed in silence so long she doesn't know the sound of her own voice her infinite beauty (pp. 2-3)
The instruments for releasing and expressing the "infinite beauty" of the "black girl's song" become the characters, who do not have names and specific identities of their own (except through their physical presences), but rather take on multiple identities and characters as the "lady in brown." "lady in red," "lady in yellow," etc. These "ladies" put on the metaphorical masks of various characters in order to enact the "ceremony" of the play, which gathers them together in a stylized, ritualistic fashion. The ritual is a religious one to the extent that the participants turn to the "spirit" which might be best described as the black female collective unconscious; it is a celebratory one in that their immersion in it is ultimately a source of joy and strength. In this sense the ritual is a festival that depends as much upon the bonds of the group as it does upon individual expression; Fabre makes this connection explicit when she says that "the group … takes possession of space and enlarges it to express communion."8
As the characters assume their different "masks," we see them enact a complex series of microdramas, some joyful and others painful. So it is that the "lady in purple" narrates the tale of Sechita, who "kicked viciously thru the nite/catchin' stars tween her toes" (p. 26), while the lady in green "plays" Sechita and dances out the role. Both of these characters "are" Sechita, for the identity of this character within a character merges in the spoken narration and the accompanying movement. Yet it also becomes clear in the course of the play that these actors/ characters are not simply assuming masks or roles for the sake of a dramatic production; they must enact the "dramas" and wear the "masks" of black women every day of their lives. Shange has taken on the difficult task, then, of universalizing her characters in the play without allowing them to fall into roles that are essentially stereotypes. She discusses the need for this balance between the "idiosyncratic" and the "representative" in an interview with Claudia Tate:
I feel that as an artist my job is to appreciate the differences among my women characters. We're usually just thrown together, like "tits and ass," or a good cook, or how we can really "f―" [sic]. Our personalities and distinctions are lost. What I appreciate about the women whom I write about, the women whom I know, is how idiosyncratic they are. I take delight in the very peculiar or particular things that fascinate or terrify them. Also, I discovered that by putting them all together, there are some things they all are repelled by, and there are some things they are all attracted to. I only discovered this by having them have their special relationships to their dreams and their unconscious.9
At times the storytellers within for colored girls seem to be putting on "masks" of humor which they wear, as part of the assumption of a role or character, in order to create a way of channeling the fear and anger they experience into the mode of performance. For instance, in one monologue the lady in red expresses the pain of a rejected love with a sardonic "itemization" of what she has been through:
without any assistance or guidance from you i have loved you assiduously for 8 months 2 wks & a day i have been stood up four times I've left 7 packages on yr doorstep forty poems 2 plants & 3 handmade notecards i left town so i cd send to you have been no help to me on my job you call at 3:00 in the mornin on weekdays so i cd drive 27 1/2 miles cross the bay before i go to work charmin charmin but you are of no assistance (p. 13)
The disruptive power of this and other "comic" narratives in the play comes from the realization that what we are laughing at, though merely amusing and exaggerated on the surface, has an underside of bitterness and even torment. Often the shift from humor to pathos is so sudden that the effect is as if we have been slapped, which is precisely the way Shange describes the transition to the story on "latent rapist bravado" ("we cd even have em over for dinner/ & get raped in our own houses/ by invitation/ a friend" [p. 21]). Helene Keyssar points out in The Curtain and the Veil that the spectator is likely to overlook the pain in favor of the humor in the play's earliest vignettes, but as the work moves into such searing narratives as the lady in blue's story of an abortion, we begin to feel increasingly uncomfortable with our own laughter. The candor of the speakers combined with the persistent irony, says Keyssar, "prevents the display of emotion from becoming melodramatic and allows the spectators a vulnerability to their own feelings that can renew their ability to act with others in the world outside the theater."10 But there is also another way to view this generation of "vulnerability": as a result of the disjunction between the guise of humor and the realization that such moments in the play are actually imbued with pain and anger, the spectator experiences the feeling of having entered an uncomfortable "space" between the two strategies of performance. Like Brecht, Shange seems to believe that inhabiting such a "space" causes the audience to question its own values and beliefs; unlike Brecht, though, she engages the emotions directly in this process. She says in her interview with Tate, "I write to get at the part of people's emotional lives that they don't have control over, the part that can and will respond."11
The most emotionally difficult (and most controversial) monologue in the play in terms of this vulnerability is the "Beau Willie Brown" sequence, the only story with a male protagonist. It concerns Beau Willie, a Vietnam veteran who beats up Crystal, the mother of their two children, so many times that she gets a court order restraining him from coming near them. When Beau Willie forces his way into Crystal's apartment and insists that she marry him, she refuses, and he takes the children away from her and holds them out on the window ledge. In the devastating final moments of the story, the lady in red, who has been telling the story, suddenly shifts from referring to Crystal in the third person to using "I":
i stood by beau in the window/ with naomi reachin for me/ & kwame screaming mommy mommy from the fifth story/ but i cd only whisper/ & he dropped em (p. 63)
It is as if, in this wrenching moment, the lady in red has abandoned the sense that she is "acting out" a story; she "becomes" the character she has been narrating. As she closes the space between her role as narrator and the character of Crystal, this moment of the story itself brings to an end the distancing effect created by Shange's use of spectacle up to this point: the piece is no longer an "entertainment" but a ritualized release of pure feeling which is experienced rather than "performed."
Because of the resonance of the "Beau Willie Brown" story, for colored girls seems on the brink of despair; instead, though, the intensity and raw emotion of the lady in red's/Crystal's narrative serves to bring the women together and to acknowledge the strength they derive from each other. They characterize this final affirmation in religious terms, but it is a piety derived from within rather than from an outward deity:
a layin' on of hands the holiness of myself released … i found god in myself & i loved her/ i loved her fiercely (pp. 66-67)
Janet Brown justly indicates the need for a movement toward such a resolution when she says that the "successful resolution to the search for autonomy is attributable first to the communal nature of the struggle."12 However, these last two sequences of the play have come under fire by some critics because they feel that Shange had ultimately failed to translate the personal into the political. Andrea Benton Rushing criticizes Shange's isolation in for colored girls "from salient aspects of black literary and political history," the "shockingly ahistorical" way it seems to ignore "white responsibility for our pain," and its final "rejection of political solutions."13 Similarly, Erskine Peters is appalled by the apparent manipulativeness of the "Beau Willie Brown" monologue:
This climax is the author's blatantly melodramatic attempt to turn the work into tragedy without fulfilling her obligations to explore or implicate the historical and deeper tragic circumstances. There is a very heated attempt to rush the play toward an evocation of pity, horror, and suffering. The application of such a cheap device at this critical thematic and structural point is an inhumane gesture to the Black community14
Rushing and Peters raise a valid issue when they say that for colored girls is not a direct and forceful indictment of white supremacist politics, at least not in as immediate a sense as spell #7. But Peters' accusation that Crystal's story constitutes a "cheap device" which turns the play into a pseudotragedy seems unfounded, for such an argument ignores the declaration of community which comes at the end of the play in response to the individual pain which reached its peak in the "Beau Willie Brown" narrative. Indeed, one might argue that the placement of this story before the play's closing ritual is Shange's attempt to avoid having the spectator convert the final moments into cathartic ones—for as Augusto Boal argues so convincingly in Theater of the Oppressed, catharsis can have the "repressive" or "coercive" effect of lulling the spectator into complacency.15 Or, as Michael W. Kaufman says of the black revolutionary theater of Baraka, Reed, and others. "The very notion of catharsis, an emotional purgation of the audience's collective energies, means that theatre becomes society's buffer sponging up all the moral indignities that if translated into action could effect substantial change."16
If the ending of the play is dissatisfying because it seems to be administering a palliative to the audience, that is precisely the point: Shange is suggesting the sources of possible strength and redemption by having the characters perform the play's closing "ritual." But since the "Beau Willie Brown" story has closed the gulf between narrator and narrative, this final "performance" cannot be only a "show." Just as the "ladies" are no longer playing "roles," the spectacle of their concluding ritual automatically conveys a sense of urgency which—coupled with the sheer emotional impact of the "Beau Willie Brown" sequence—prevents the audience from experiencing the ending as cathartic.
Kimberly Benston discusses black American theater's movement away from European-American structures and toward African-rooted ones in terms of the shift from mimesis/drama to methexis/ritual. Not only, she claims, does the ritual create a sense of community, as we have discussed in for colored girls, but it also breaks down the barriers that have traditionally existed between the performers and the spectators.17 This is perhaps why, in the opening of Shange's spell #7 (1979), there is a "huge black face mask" visible on the stage even while the audience is still coming into the theater. Shange says that "in a way the show has already begun, for the members of the audience must integrate this grotesque, larger than life misrepresentation of life into their pre-show chatter."18 We might say that she thus attempts to erase distinctions between "play" and "audience": not only does the performance address the spectators, but in this case the spectators are also forced to "address" the performance. At the beginning of the play, the performers parade in minstrel masks identical to the huge one which looms overhead; they eventually shed their masks and pose instead as "actors" (or actors playing actors who, in turn, play at being actors), but the image of the minstrel mask is a sign that even modern black actors are still often conceived of as little more than minstrels. As the actor/character Bettina complains, "if that director asks me to play it any blacker/ I'm gonna have to do it in a mammy dress" (p. 14).
Shange, then, makes the minstrel-masking into a ceremony of sorts in the opening scene of spell #7, and the resemblance of the giant minstrel face above the stage to an African voodoo mask is wholly intentional. At the same time, though, the blackface masks that the actors wear at the beginning of the play also invoke the travesty of a ceremony, for the masks represent the "parts" each must play (in the Western tradition) in order to get a job. Shange connects this to her feelings about her own "masking" in an interview with Tate:
It was risky for us to do the minstrel dance in spell #7, but I insisted upon it because I thought the actors in my play were coming from pieces they didn't want to be in but pieces that helped them pay their bills. Black characters are always being closed up in a "point." They decided, for instance, that spell #7 by Zaki Shange is a feminist piece and therefore not poetry. Well, that's a lie. That's giving me a minstrel mask…. We're not free of our paint yet! The biggest money-makers—The Wiz, Bubblin' Brown Sugar, Ain't Misbehavin'—are all minstrel shows.19
In the course of the play, though, the actors/characters also use "masking" in a different way; they try on various "masks" or roles, as in for colored girls, to perform the monologues and group pieces that provide both mirrors and alternatives for the various "selves" they create under pressure from a society governed by white values and images. So, for instance, one of the nameless and faceless performers behind a minstrel mask at the beginning of the play becomes the actor Natalie in the next scene, who in turn "becomes" Sue-Jean, a young woman who desperately wants a baby, as she and Alec (another of the "minstrels" revealed as actor/character) alternate in narrating her story while she mimes it out.
Unlike for colored girls, spell #7 makes use of a central storyteller figure, Lou, who "directs" the monologues which are performed in the course of the play. It is appropriate that Lou is a magician, for even the title of spell #7 (the subtitle of which is "geechee jibara quik magic trance manual for technologically stressed third world people") refers to magic making. In his opening speech, though, Lou warns of the power (and danger) of "colored" magic:
my daddy retired from magic & took up another trade cuz this friend a mine from the 3rd grade/ asked to be made white on the spot what cd any self-respectin colored american magician do with such an outlandish request/ cept put all them razzamatazz hocus pocus zippity-doo-dah thingamajigs away cuz colored chirren believin in magic waz becomin politically dangerous for the race … all things are possible but ain't no colored magician in his right mind gonna make you white i mean this is blk magic you lookin at & I'm fixin you up good/ fixin you up good & colored (pp. 7-8)
The image of the narrator as "magician" implies that the storytellers themselves will be under the control of a certain "author"; yet as the actors perform their pieces, the stories seem at times to slip away from a guiding narratorial force and to become deeply personal. In a sense, the performers threaten to overpower the narrator in the same way that the third grader's request to be made white is beyond the power of Lou's magician father: the stories take on a kind of magic which is independent of their "director," and yet to enter this realm may be painful and perilous, Lou, then, is like a surrogate author who is responsible for the content of the play, but who also cannot fully control what happens to it once the performers begin to take part.
Lou's position in relation to the performers is most fully evident when, after Lily becomes wholly absorbed in her monologue about the network of dreams she has built around her image of her hair, he stands up and points to her. Shange indicates in the stage directions that Lou "reminds us that it is only thru him that we are able to know these people without the 'masks'/ the lies/ & he cautions that all their thoughts are not benign, they are not safe from what they remember or imagine" (p. 27). He says, partly to Lily and partly to the audience:
you have t come with me/ to this place where magic is/ to hear my song/ some times i forget & leave my tune in the corner of the closet under all the dirty clothes/ in this place/ magic asks me where I've been/ how I've been singin/ lately i leave my self in all the wrong hands/ in this place where magic is involved in undoin our masks/ i am able to smile & answer that. in this place where magic always asks for me i discovered a lot of other people who talk without mouths who listen to what you say/ by watchin yr jewelry dance & in this place where magic stays you can let yrself in or out but when you leave yrself at home/ burglars & daylight thieves pounce on you & sell your skin/ at cut-rate on tenth avenue (p. 27)
The "place where magic is" means, within the most literal context of the play, the bar where the actors meet and feel free to try on various roles. But it is also the theater, and the implication is that, as such, it is both a safe place and an unsafe place: certain inhibitions are lifted and certain feelings can be portrayed, but one risks vulnerability in exposing one's memories and emotions. Finally, "this place where magic is" marks the space in which the actor/writer/artist allows creativity to happen. The impulse to safeguard it—"lately i leave my self in all the wrong hands"—echoes the fear of loss which Shange turns into a similar set of metaphors in the "somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff" poem in for colored girls. But something interesting occurs as the result of Lou's delivery of this speech: although he designs it to reinforce his power as the play's magician/narrator, its effect is to establish him as being in a position not altogether different from that of the other characters, for the speech reveals his vulnerability, his disguises and defenses, and his need to inhabit a "safe" place in which to create.
If Lou is indeed addressing the audience as well as Lily, the implication is that he is inviting the spectator to become similarly vulnerable. Not surprisingly, then, the play's two "centerpiece" monologues attempt—as in for colored girls—to take hold of the spectator in the gap that the performers create between the "safe" region of spectacle/ entertainment and the "unsafe" region of pain and emotional assailability. In the first of the two monologues, Alec tells of his wish for all of the white people all over the world to kneel down for three minutes of silence in formal apology for the pain that they have given to black people:
i just want to find out why no one has even been able to sound a gong & all the reporters recite that the gong is ringin/ while we watch all the white people/ immigrants & invaders/ conquistadors & relatives of london debtors from georgia/ kneel & apologize to us/ just for three or four minutes, now/ this is not impossible.
Of course, the image is an absurd one, and Lou calls attention to this when he responds to Alec, "what are you gonna do with white folks kneeling all over the country anyway/ man" (p. 47). The humor in Alec's rather extreme proposal is undercut, however, by the suffering which stands behind such a request. Perhaps the most savage example of anger transferred to the realm of the comic, though, and one which cannot fail to disturb the audience, is Natalie's "today I'm gonna be a white girl" monologue. She takes on the voice of the vacuous and hypocritical "white girl" who flings her hair, waters her plants, and takes twenty Valiums a day:
… I'm still waiting for my cleaning lady & the lady who takes care of my children & the lady who caters my parties & the lady who accepts quarters at the bathroom in sardi's, those poor creatures shd be sterilized/ no one shd have to live such a life. cd you hand me a towel/ thank-you caroline. I've left all of maxime's last winter clothes in a pile for you by the back door, they have to be cleaned but i hope yr girls can make gd use of them. (p. 49)
Freud says in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious that the ability to laugh at something is interfered with when the "joke" material also produces a strong affect and so another emotion "blocks" one's capacity to generate laughter;20 for this reason, it is not surprising that the "white girls" in the audience at whom this monologue is aimed may feel too angry at Natalie's speech to consider it funny. Or they may laugh because they distance themselves from the reality of her words. Similarly, the very intensity of Natalie's emotions as she speaks this piece shows both the amount of pain which gradually interferes with her ability to sustain the joking tone of her own speech at the end and the intensified need for release through humor which her bitterness engenders. As Freud indicates,
precisely in cases where there is a release of affect one can observe a particularly strong difference in expenditure bring about the automatism of release. When Colonel Butler answers Octavio's warnings be exclaiming 'with a bitter laugh': 'Thanks from the House of Austria!' his embitterment does not prevent his laughing. The laugh applies to his memory of the disappointment he believes he has suffered; and on the other hand the magnitude of the disappointment cannot be portrayed more impressively by the dramatist than by his showing it capable of forcing a laugh in the midst of the storm of feelings that have been released.21
It is also striking that the play's final monologue, spoken by Maxine, comes forth because she is "compelled to speak by natalie's pain" (i.e., after Natalie delivers the "white girl" monologue [p. 49]). As in for colored girls, the play's penultimate sequence seems to be different in tone from the earlier monologues—and again, the effect is a closure of the "gaps" we have discussed. Here Maxine speaks of the way her world was shattered when she realized as a child that blacks were not exempt from the diseases, crimes, and so on, that white people experienced. She closes with a description of her decision to appropriate gold chains, bracelets, and necklaces as a symbol of "anything hard to get & beautiful./ anything lasting/ wrought from pain," followed by the shattering remark that "no one understands that surviving the impossible is sposed to accentuate the positive aspects of a people" (p. 51). Lou, as "director" of the action, freezes the players before they can fully respond to Maxine's words, and he repeats the closing portion of his opening speech: "And you gonna be colored all yr life/ & you gonna love it/ bein colored/ all yr life." As the minstrel mask reappears above them, he leads the actors in the chant "colored & love it/ love it bein colored" (p. 52). Shange notes in the stage directions that the chant is a "serious celebration, like church/ like home" (p. 52). Her words are entirely appropriate to the dual nature of the ending: it is true that the characters are celebrating themselves, but the resonance of the preceding monologue, which was fraught with pain—as well as the overwhelming presence of the minstrel mask—recalls the anger and frustration which also underlie their chant. The characters, then, are imprisoned in the stereotypes and social position which the world has assigned to them, but like the women in for colored girls they call for unity as a source of strength. Their chant of "colored & love it/ love it bein colored" suggests that they intend to escape from their prison by redefining it so that it is no longer a prison. But the possibility remains that for the time being the escape may be only a partial one. As Shange writes in "unrecovered losses/black theater traditions," the minstrel face which descends is "laughing at all of us for having been so game/we believed we cd escape his powers."22
Spell #7's ultimate vision may be more cynical than that of for colored girls, but its call for redefinitions is one which echoes throughout Shange's theater pieces. She invites a reconsideration of role-playing which suggests that in the process of acting out the various "masks" that blacks/women are expected to assume, one undergoes an experience of interior drama. Liberated through monologic language and by dance, song, etc., which release different, richer, more complex characters and experiences, the very nature of role-playing has been appropriated as a tool for "performing a self." She sees role-playing as a way simultaneously to give her characters an archetypal fluidity and to confront role-oriented stereotypes. On some level Shange's characters are always aware that they are speaking to an audience; perhaps this emphasis is an acknowledgment of the sense that women—as John Berger discusses in Ways of Seeing—are always the objects of vision and so are constantly watching themselves being watched.23 Rather than decentering the position of authorship in her plays by providing a sense that the characters are as if "self-created," though, Shange appears to share Michelene Wandor's view that deliberate attention to the author's role as "storyteller" provides a backbone, a controlling structure, for the play.24 Interwoven with this is a revision of spectacle as a vehicle for amusement; Shange's interpretation of "spectacle" insists upon questioning both the mode of performance which lures the audience's attention (as in the minstrel show at the beginning of spell #7) and the subtext of the spectacle itself. The monologue, then, is both an object for transformation and a means by which transformations can occur. Above all, Shange feels passionately that "we must move our theater into the drama of our lives."25 Her works attempt to speak, in the way that she says Layla's unconscious does in boogie woogie landscapes, of "unspeakable realities/ for no self-respecting afro-american girl wd reveal so much of herself of her own will/ there is too much anger to handle assuredly/ too much pain to keep on truckin/ less ya bury it."26
1. Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf (1977; reprint New York: Bantam, 1981), pp. 1-2. Subsequent references to the play are to this edition and will be indicated in the text. N.B.; Shange's spelling, punctuation, and diction make up her unique style and have been reproduced as printed in the texts of her works.
2. Combahee River Collective, "A Black Feminist Statement," in But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies, ed. Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell, and Barbara Smith (New York: Feminist Press, 1982), p. 15.
3. Cf. Alice Walker, "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens," in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens (New York and San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983), p. 237.
4. Ntozake Shange, Nappy Edges (London: Methuen, 1987), p. 11.
5. James Hatch, "Some African Influences on the Afro-American Theatre," in The Theater of Black Americans, ed. Errol Hill (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980), vol. 1, p. 25.
6. Geneviève Fabre, Drumbeats Masks and Metaphor: Contemporary Afro-American Theatre, trans. Melvin Dixon (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 219.
7. Ntozake Shange, boogie woogie landscapes, in Three Pieces (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981), p. 113.
8. Fabre, Drumbeats Masks and Metaphor, p. 226.
9. Claudia Tate, ed., Black Women Writers at Work (New York: Continuum, 1983), p. 153.
10. Helene Keyssar, The Curtain and the Veil: Strategies in Black Drama (New York: Burt Franklin, 1981), pp. 213-15.
11. Tate, Black Women Writers, p. 156.
12. Janet Brown, Feminist Drama (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1979), p. 129.
13. Andrea Benton Rushing, "for colored girls, Suicide or Struggle," Massachusetts Review 22 (Autumn 1981), 544, 546, 550. Certainly, it would be difficult for Rushing to make the same accusations of spell #7.
14. Erskine Peters, "Some Tragic Propensities of Our-selves: The Occasion of Ntozake Shange's 'for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf,'" Journal of Ethnic Studies 6, no. 1 (Spring 1978), 82.
15. August Boal, Theater of the Oppressed, trans. Charles A. McBride and Maria-Odilia Leal McBride (New York: Urizen, 1979), p. 25.
16. Michael W. Kaufman, "The Delicate World of Reprobation: A Note on the Black Revolutionary Theatre," in The Theater of Black Americans, ed. Erroll Hill (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980), vol. 1, pp. 206-7.
17. Kimberly W. Benston, "The Aesthetic of Modern Black Drama," in The Theater of Black Americans, ed. Erroll Hill (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980), vol. 1, pp. 62-63.
18. Ntozake Shange, spell #7, in Three Pieces (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981), p. 7. Subsequent references to the play are to this edition and will be indicated in the text.
19. Tate, Black Women Writers, p. 173.
20. Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1960), pp. 220-21.
22. Ntozake Shange, "unrecovered losses/ black theater traditions," in Three Pieces (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981), p. xiii.
23. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (Middlesex: Penguin/BBC, 1972), pp. 446-47.
24. Michelene Wandor, Carry On, Understudies: Theater and Sexual Politics, rev. ed. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), p. 128.
25. Shange, "unrecovered losses," p. ix.
26. Ibid., p. xiv.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6988
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 ending, all of Shakespeare's comedies, for example, conclude with a wedding dance. Northrop Frye has noted dance's presence in the masque, during which audience participation with the actors was encouraged (288); he also emphasizes the "participation mystique" of dance, comparing it to religious lyrics and "poems of community" (295-96). In modern American popular culture, dance has been associated with opportunities for individual self-expression. For example, in American musical plays such as My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle's linguistic triumph at the ball is noted in "I Could Have Danced All Night." The Jets and Sharks of West Side Story sing, strut, and leap their masculine prowess, while Maria whirls in space, singing her love and female self-appreciation in "I Feel Pretty." And more recently, the heroine of the film Dirty Dancing has danced her way into independence and sexual maturity. For our culture, inherent in the act of dancing are, in varying degrees, self-affirmation, eroticism, spiritual renewal, and communal bonding, suggesting dance's ability to heal the mind/body split.
This split, which especially afflicts women transculturally, is identified by Adrienne Rich, Jane Gallop, and others as a major force perpetuating patriarchal culture for American women. Leslie Gotfrit has argued that not only dancing but also writing about dance (and reading about it, I would add) helps to heal this mind/body division: "Dancing precipitates an incredible longing. To recover the pleasure—in the imaging and re-membering,' the connecting again with my limbs, my breath, my body—is to ignite desire. These are rare moments of realizing my body and mind as not distinct, and of feeling the power of creativity when embodied. This is my history and investment in dance, always in the shadow of the writing" (176). This reintegration of body with mind is central to women's empowerment and to any political agenda that they may pursue (Gotfrit 184). Gotfrit explains how the physicality of the music and pleasure in the movement liberate women's normally controlled sexual feelings, a control society expects of women: in dance, "letting go of the tight rein women often keep on their sexuality is possible … dancing permits and frees the body to experience sensuality and desire, [and] sexuality (frequently and area of silence and pain in women's lives) is allowed expression", a dancing woman thus experiences pleasure from contacting her own sexuality and also feels in control of herself (178-79). Because she is in control, a woman can resist attempts to turn her body into a sexual object. Eroticism, resistance to sexual oppression, and self-proclamation, as well as communal unification and spiritual rejuvenation, then, are some of the pleasures of dance sought by Western women.
African cultures also recognize dance's affective and spiritual powers, giving dance a central place in their communal events, both secular and religious. As John S. Mbiti indicates in his book. Introduction to African Religion, music, singing, and dance together are used "in all activities of African life: in cultivating the fields, fishing, herding, performing ceremonies, praising rulers and warriors, hushing babies to sleep …" (8). Mbiti describes the function of music and dance during communal worship as a way of dissolving barriers between each person's mind, body, and spirit: "Through music, singing, and dancing, people are able to participate emotionally and physically in the act of worship. The music and dancing penetrate into the very being of the worshipping individuals" (61). Dance celebrations also dissolve barriers between individuals: "The dancing and rejoicing strengthen community solidarity and emphasize the corporateness of the whole group" (Mbiti, African Religion and Philosophy 182). In praising warriors and rulers through dance. Africans also recognize the individuality affirming aspect of dance. Borderlands between the human world and the spirit world also merge in the dancing or religious mediums—often women—who communicate with spirits or are possessed by them (Mbiti, Introduction 157). While Mbiti's generalizing about all African cultures does not attend to specific tribes's practices concerning dance, his observations about the individually affirming and communal elements of dance for participants and spectators alike are still applicable to many tribes.
Inheritors of both African and American cultural practices and attitudes, many African American writers, particularly women who are finding their own voices as writers, have turned to dance as a thematic or metaphoric motif for empowerment and self-proclamation, as well as for literary sisterhood. From a feminist perspective, it is not surprising that African American women writers, three of whom I will focus on in this essay, are attracted to dance. Although Gotfrit writes about women disco dancing with other women at Toronto dance clubs as feminist resistance to traditional couples's dancing, the writers discussed in this essay imagine a new space for women's dancing far beyond "imperatives like coupled heterosexuality and politely restrained dancing" (191), and Gotfrit's conception of the sexual politics of dancing applies to these texts. Thus, an African American woman writer may be drawn to dance for its ideological implication, while also being attracted to the religious fervor and renewal associated with dance in African contexts.
These African American women authors not only use themes and metaphors of dance, but also adopt literally the African belief (as presented by Mbiti) in dance's power to dissolve boundaries: they write texts which dissolve literary borders, generic boundaries. Moreover, they nudge readers to relinquish distinctions between the personal essay and lyric poetry, between poetry and performative drama, between analytical and affective writing, and between literature and music/choreography. This is not to say that African, American, and African American cultures as represented in these texts are always knowable, coherent, and unchanging over time and place, that all African American women writers write about dance in consistently predictable ways, or that African American women when writing always take up themes of self-empowerment, convey these themes through dance metaphors, and challenge generic conventions, I agree with William J. Spurlin's assertion that text-centered readings of black texts and discussions of such "black" literary tropes of African American discourse as signifying, are essentializing: "It becomes theoretically difficult to speak of the black text or of a notion of a social and cultural African-American whole without inevitably reducing the multiplicities within each to a homogenized essence that excludes the similarities to Western forms [and also African forms] of discourse which African American texts both inscribe and in which they are always already inscribed" (735). To avoid essentializing, this essay considers simply how some African American women writers seek new ways of expressing the multiplicity and complexity of black womanhood through innovative texts that transcend traditional genres. This essay offers readings of three "hybrid-generic" texts written, respectively, by Ntozake Shange, Paule Marshall, and Alice Walker: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Praisesong for the Widow, and "Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self."
In these texts, the female protagonists are in quest of themselves, endeavoring to understand and express their multiple selves by tracing where they came from and how experiences have changed them. This quest for identity and self-expression and the results of this quest, including spiritual renewal, self-acceptance, and newly defined identities, are described through dance. Marshall's Avey Johnson is purged of her middle-class New York values and inhibitors during a trip to the Caribbean. There she makes contact with her African ancestry and embraces its ideals and values by participating in an island ceremony; with the African rhythms pulsing in her blood, she "dances her nation." Similarly, a group of women characters in Shange's text poetically celebrate their kinship and support of each other as they dance the blues of race and gender. They chant in choral poems and dance, solo and ensemble, their personal encounters with racism and sexism, as well as the loves and triumphs that define their individual identities as black women. Finally, Walker's autobiographical essay presents Walker's persona as a woman who comes to value the physical imperfection of her eye, out of which she has developed a strong, wise, and sympathetic personality. Walker's text choronologically traces incidents in her persona's life in which her damaged and disfigured eye played a role, up to the point at which she can accept her eye's role in determining who Alice Walker is. This acceptance is symbolized in the persona's dance-embrace with another part of herself in a dream.
When the protagonists of Paule Marshall, Ntozake Shange, and Alice Walker dance, these authors are using dance as a metaphor to signify their character's self-discoveries, self-expression, and self-endorsement. While dance events within the narrative free the protagonists to redefine and be themselves, dance rhythms often pervade these author's prose, freeing the texts from traditional language, structures, and genres. As Barbara Christian observes, "In every society where there is the denigrated Other …, the Other struggles to declare the truth and therefore create the truth in forms that exist for her or him" ("Creating" 160). If the forms do not exist, writers who are Others depicting marginality must create new forms. These new structures or genres in themselves perform "formal signifying" (Gates 294), structurally parodic commentary on or protest against earlier texts and styles, especially those of white patriarchal literary tradition, but also those of earlier African American writers. Creating these new structures or genres is an act of "rhetorical self-definition" (Gates 290) for Marshall, Shange, and Walker. Furthermore, the new genres encourage readers to find new ways to make meanings about race and gender, to read these texts with greater flexibility.
Marshall had been attracted to dance as a thematic metaphor for self-expression and self-development in 1959 in her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones. In that novel, the heroine, Selina Boyce, dances the life-cycle of the self near the end of the book with an all-white dance group. This experience, including its aftermath, where she has a confrontation with the mother of one of the dancers, teaches her the role that racism must play in the life-cycle of an African American woman. However, this text, in its structure and narrative perspective, is a conventional, though powerful, representation of the novel as genre. In contrast, Praisesong for the Window (1983) uses dance metaphors and offers some innovations on the novel as genre.
In Praisesong, Avey Johnson is introduced as an assimilated, middle-class black woman from North White Plains, New York—readers will note the play on "White." Recently widowed, Avey experiences a sense of dislocation from herself while on a Caribbean cruise; she feels a mind/body split: her "mind in a way wasn't even in her body" (10). Her mind/body split is also apparent in her loss of contact with the ethnicity of her newlywed days, when she danced with her husband Jay while listening to the gospel and blues music on the radio on Sunday mornings. Marshall names the praisesongs and blues melodies as well as the singers and the lyrics, vividly depicting the couple's private dancing, its sensuality and ethnicity. Avey has also lost touch with those summer days of her childhood spent on the South Carolina seacoast island of Tatem, where her Aunt Cuney tried to teach her racial reverence, a form of African ancestral worship, by recounting myths of the island's Landing and early African inhabitants, the Ibos. Aunt Cuney herself had danced as a way of worshipping and contacting her African ancestors: she had done a "forbidden" (anti-Christian) dance before the Christian church in Tatem, "crossing her feet' in a Ring Shout"—a step that at once repudiated the Western, white Christian values adopted by Tatem's church-going citizens and celebrated the spirits of Africa (33). Avey, however, has neglected her racial past, the values and traditions of Africa. That she has consequently lost contact with aspects of her own identity is clear as she peers into mirrors and observes a well-dressed, acceptable-looking (to white society) black woman, whom she does not recognize, but upon whom she smugly remarks: "She would never be sent to eat in the kitchen when company came" (48-49). Upon second glance, she realizes this stranger in the mirror is herself. Readers feel almost as distant from Avey as she is from herself in this early stage of the novel, put off by her "Marian Anderson reserve," her "white" propriety.
Marshall then traces Avey's journey back to herself and her Caribbean and African ancestry. Guided by an island native, Lebert Joseph, Avey takes the Carriacou Excursion, a ritual of renewal through reinforcement of kinship undertaken annually by the outislanders of Grenada; they return to their home island of Carriacou to give the Old Parents, the Long-Time People, their remembrance and their reverence, through singing, dancing and ceremonial. On Carriacou, Avey participates in the Big Drum ceremony, hears the Beg Pardon song—begging pardon for her lapses of racial memory—and joins "the endless procession of dancers over the years" (235) as she performs the Carriacou tramp of the Aradas, her ancestral tribe in Africa. She also becomes reconnected to the other Carriacou islanders, the people on Tatem, and her earliest New York community. Marshall's narrator describes Avey's dancing in this way: "Just as her feet of their own accord had discovered the old steps, her hips under the linen shirtdress slowly began to weave from side to side on their own, stiffly at first and then in a smooth wide are as her body responded more deeply to the music…. All of her moving suddenly with a vigor and passion she hadn't felt in years" (249). As a reader, I was also swept into the dance movements by Marshall's rhythmic prose descriptions of Avey's experience. Avey's body and her memory move her into a mystical, reverential state. She dances her ancestry uninhibitedly, in bodily expression of the psychic process of remembering. In the act of dancing, she finds and names herself, reclaiming her ancestral name of Avatara and re-experiencing African religious ritual. Avatara dances herself into contact with a rich heritage and self-pride that spiritually recharges her.
Barbara Christian notes a connection between the spiritual process that Avery undergoes and the four-part structure or Marshall's novel. The novel's four sections, titled "Runagate," "Sleeper's Wake," "Lave Tete," and "The Beg Pardon," trace the gradual purging, cleansing, and immersion of Avey in African rituals and also reflect "a change in Avey Johnson's character and context" (151). In the first section she escapes her bondage to her white middle-class ethos as she leaves the cruise ship and heads for Grenada. In the second section, she is like a sleeper awakening spiritually as she reassesses her past, especially her marriage to Jay. She finally mourns the transformation of the ethnic, erotic, fun-loving Jay into the "sanitized," dour, ambitious Jerome. The third section marks Avey's ritual cleansing and purging in preparation for her excursion to Carriacou. As Christian notes, this section is associated with a cleansing Haitian voodoo ceremony (154); Avey, now having become a clean slate, is prepared, with the help of Lebert Joseph, to recreate her history and to write her history anew. Her actual boat trip to Carriacou provides the ultimate purgation: the terrible seasickness that Marshall describes unsparingly suggests Avey is dislodging and expelling the sick values of her North White Plains existence. Afterwards, she is bathed as if she were a baby, ritually cleansed by Lebert's daughter, Rosalie Parvay. Finally, in the fourth section, after all this psychic and physical preparation, Avey is able to undergo the ritualistic music and dance ceremony that links her securely to her ancestry.
While readers will be aware of this neat narrative structure of the novel because of the page divisions and breaks in the chronology of Avey's story, Marshall at the same time ruffles the neatness and white Western reader's expectations, both by connecting this structure to African and Haitian rituals and by bringing together elements of fiction, history, music, and dance to form a new, differently energized novelistic genre. The atmosphere of this new genre enables readers to empathize more with Avey's story. We might call the genre a mythopoetic, fictionalized history of African Americans. This genre broadcasts its African and Caribbean elements not only through structure, but also through the increasing presence of the lilting English rhythm and inverted syntax of the Caribbean islander and through the lively Caribbean patois, as spoken by Joseph ("… when you see me down on my knees at the Big Drum is not just for me one … Oh, no! Is for tout moun"' ), by his daughter Rosalie ("Come, oui,… is time now to have your skin bathe. And this time I gon' give you a proper washdown'" ), by another islander Milda ("The nation dances starting up … Is only the old people dances them'" ) and even, in the fourth section, by Avey herself. When Avey speaks like an islander, readers recognize how far she has moved toward her origins: "Tel pere tel file. She was unmistakably the old man's daughter" (216), and "Over by the tree Avey Johnson slowly lifted her head. And for an instant as she raised up it almost seemed to be her great aunt standing there beside her in the guise of the big-boned maid. Pa'done mwe. What next was to come?" (237). The inverted syntax of the final sentence gives it an especially strong Caribbean flavor. In addition, pa'done mwe, the Caribbean patios phrase for "pardon me," present here in Avey's thoughts, is repeated by other islanders, ritualistically chanted throughout the fourth section, echoing the Beg Pardon Ceremony and the central theme of rapprochement between an individual and her ancestors.
In the fourth section, moreover, the dance and song threads introduced individually in the earlier sections now are interwoven, like themes of a fugue or dance composition; praisesongs, Ring Shouts, Beg Pardons, Big Drums converge, representing the richly woven fabric of African American culture. As Christian points out, the final ceremony "combines rituals from several black societies: the Ring Dances of Tatem, the Bojangles of New York, the voodoo drums of Haiti, the rhythms of the various African peoples … also specifically the embodiment of the history and culture of New World blacks … [in the notes that distinguish] Afro-American blues, spirituals and jazz, Afro-Caribbean Calypso and Reggae, Brazilian music" (157). Avey is especially moved by one "dark, plangent note" of music at the Big Drum, a note that comes from "the bruised still-bleeding innermost chamber of the collective heart" (244-45). She relearns the history of her people through such music, then expresses and extends that history through her dancing.
Dancing enables Avey thus to think through her body (Jane Gallop's term), to grasp mentally and viscerally her collective and individual history. Her active embrace of her collective and individual ethnic history will change her own life after this journey, inspiring her to the role of extending to other Americans these African and African American cultural myths (McCluskey 333), teaching her children, grandchildren, and her wider New York community about the richness of their heritage.
As she does the Carriacou tramp. Avey carefully follows the rule of not letting her feet lose contact with the ground, a rule which metaphorically implies the principle of maintaining contact with her ancestral soil, her people, and their traditions. That is why Marshall calls this dance "the shuffle designed to stay the course of history" (250)—designed to subvert the drift of historical events that have prevented African American and Afro-Caribbeans from maintaining contact with their African cultures. Similarly, Marshall's novel, with its Caribbean linguistic play, its blend of mythopoesis and fictionalized African American history, and its synthesis of literary, musical, and dance elements, creates a hybrid genre that arrests the course of American—including African American—literary history and expands the perimeters of the "universal" themes and forms present in canonical twentieth-century American fiction.
The colorfully dressed women in Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf assertively take control of the stage and create a blended poetry-dance-theatrical experience, a staged "choreopoem" that surely alters the course of dramatic and dance history in America. Gotfrit's observation about women dancing in the Toronto dance club is equally applicable to Shange's performative text: "The appropriating of space [through dancing] exclusively for women's pleasure, control, and solidarity is radical" (186). Reading Shange's innovative text is also a radicalizing experience, Hearing it read or performed is even more radicalizing. This hybrid genre is both choreographed poetry and Greek choral drama (although we note with amusement Shange's revision of Greek drama in the text's demand for only women, while Greek choral dramas featured only men). Individual actor-dancers recite their poems as they gesture and move to the meanings and the feelings of their words—thinking through the body—while the rest of the ensemble is immobile and silent; or the ensemble chants and moves together in response to the individual's solo plaint, physically and verbally supporting her in travail. This travail usually involves the women's search for identity, mistreatment by a man, the problems of poverty, or racial prejudice. Even when the other women of the ensemble are apart from the dancer/speaker who is in the spotlight, their attentive listening to her recitation creates a unifying and supportive energy, which also elicits the support of the reader/audience.
Unity and support are apparent, for example, in the poignant "no more love poems #4," where the lady in yellow, solo, through speech and gestures discloses her surprise at her persistent vulnerability to pain and disappointment in a love relationship: "i shd be immune/if i'm still alive" (47). She then confesses that she is not immune, that in her future she will still need to love and be loved even though she will probably be hurt again. She survives "on intimacy and tomorrow" (48). The slang diction ("the music waz like smack" ), unconventional spelling, and non-capitalization of the words signal to readers the vernacular quality of the language and the ordinary, candid, human cast of this woman's words. Through these linguistic devices, we feel as if she is conversing with us (she asks us, "do you see the point?" ). We sense an urgency in the woman's communication and feel an intimacy with the communicant. Then the woman distills the essence of being black and female in these words: "bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma/I haven't conquered yet/… my spirit is too ancient to understand the separation of soul and gender/my love is too delicate to have thrown back in my face" (48). The lady in yellow attempts to resolve her metaphysical dilemma by declaring her commitment to love, by refusing to endure men's abuse of this love, and by proclaiming the humanity of her soul. She refuses to be dehumanized as a sex object.
The lady in yellow's words strike a responsive chord in her listening sisters, who have just reentered onstage and are frozen statues in the background. The lady in yellow looks at them and repeats her final line about refusing to let her too delicate love be thrown back in her face. Then that line resonates in each of the other differently colored ladies, each actor in quick succession modulating the line, making it her own by substituting for "too delicate," "too beautiful" (lady in brown), "too sanctified" (lady in purple), "too magic" (lady in blue), "too Saturday nite" (lady in orange), "too complicated" (lady in red), "too music" (lady in green). Next, representing a rainbow of the varied experiences of colored women, they all join together physically and linguistically to dance and describe some shared qualities of colored women's lives. Dancing and chanting, they build to a fevered pitch that mesmerizes readers, using the same word order of the individual chants, but now reciting together the words "music," "beautiful," "sanctified," "magic," "Saturday nite," and "complicated." Their unified chant increases to orgasmic intensity as they urge one another's right to love an be loved with dignity. Shange's stage directions indicate the physical, linguistic, and psychological movement of the scene: "The dance reaches a climax and all of the ladies fall out tried but full of life and togetherness" (52).
Thus, dance motifs that alternate immobility with energetic motion and apartness with unity, together with dramatic staging, colorful costumes, choral interpretations of poetry, and the quickening tempo of chanting all convey the centrality and intensity of love and sisterhood in these women of color's lives. Generic innovations that merge dance, choral recitative, poetry, and drama implement Shange's feminist commitment to rethink conventional genres's depictions of women, iterating her desire to depict and clarify individual women's lives, "unearthing the mislaid, forgotten, &/or misunderstood, women writers, painters, others, cowgirls, & union leaders of our pasts" (xiv-xv). Charles Johnson has perceptively written that Shange's play both fits in with the tradition of avant-garde black theatre established by Baraka and also "transcends the imperialism of male gender that dominated many earlier plays in the history of black drama" (99).
As Shange's women express through verse and dance their individual stories of pain and triumph, they explain what prompts them to dance: "to keep from cryin, to keep from dyin,… come to share our worlds witchu/we come here to be dancin" (15-16). Dance is both an individually inspiriting, self-affirming medium and a means of spiritual bonding with a community for Shange's characters, as it is for Avey Johnson. Almost like a cathartic religious ritual, dance helps the women shake off despair and isolation by enabling them to communicate more effectively with each other, with audiences, and with their private selves, Dancing, moreover, frees them to express physically a reverence for their own ethnicity and femaleness. In the preface to her choreopoem. Shange says of her own dancing: "With dance I discovered my body more intimately that I had imagined possible. With the acceptance of the ethnicity of my thighs & backside, came a clearer understanding of my voice as a woman & as a poet. The freedom to move in space, to demand of my own sweat a perfection that could continually be approached, though never known, waz poem to me, my body & mind ellipsing, probably for the first time in my life" (xv).
Besides creating in her choreopoem the freedom for her actor-poets to move imaginatively in space, Shange also "dances" innovatively in her use of language. She seizes the freedom to write what Gates calls a "speakerly" language "that privilege[s] the representation of the speaking black voice" (296), language that her women can recite unaffectedly, passionately. As mentioned earlier, the unorthodox orthography, diction, and syntax of this language create an intimacy between the women and the reader. These linguistic devices also reflect the women's African American ethnicity, their Otherness resisting the American "standard English" of the politically empowered. The language is, moreover, astringently funny, as when, for example, one of the ladies, exasperated by a lover who has taken for granted her willingness to debase herself for the sake of his love, finally decides to end their one-sided affair and keep her dignity. She writes him this note, which she reads to the audience: "i am endin this affair/this note is attached to a plant/i've been waterin since the day i met you/you may water it/yr damn self" (14). As Charles Johnson has observed, the humor in these women's speakerly language tempers the pain revealed in their stories (98-99): it also subverts the power of the male oppressors, exposing one of their "womanish" strategies for surviving the hardships in their lives.
These linguistic and generic innovations of Shange, then, resist the "anxiety of influence" of white/male and even black/male literary texts, enabling her to write of black women's experiences freshly and empathically. Claudia Tate, in an interview with Shange, reports that as an aspect of her artistic credo Shange assumes the responsibility to discover the causes of the pain of women and all black people, to respect their suffering, and to communicate it with honesty (150-56). She does these things very well in the language, dance metaphors and movements, and form of this choreopoem for colored girls.
Alice Walker also uses a dance metaphor to chart the development of a central character, her persona, in her autobiographical essay, "Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self," from her collection of essays In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. In this essay, moreover, Walker dances over conventional generic categories. She begins with the personal essay or memoir, which typically contains self-revelations, self-analysis, and conscious, selective shaping of chronological events into a narrative history. Then she extends this form by merging it with a lyrical poem and with another beautifully orchestrated dance-poem of the unconscious mind, which acts as the coda to the essay.
Walker's essay traces the development of the author's self-image through her life, as shaped by several keenly remembered, emotionally charged events from childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The events are carefully selected and arranged, beginning with her memories of being a pretty, admired little girl, loved and favored especially by her father, whom she adored. Walker flashes back to herself at two-and-half and describes the scene in the present tense, a sign to readers that the event is as clearly recalled as if it had happened yesterday, so vividly does the Wordsworthian "picture of the mind" revive. The beribboned Alice is being readied by her parents for the county fair. Then she moves to her six-year-old self, again describing in the present tense the beautifully attired pretty girl confidently delivering her speech on Easter Sunday, 1950.
The mood of the essay shifts as Walker's persona next chronicles the traumatic event that undermines her self-approval, withdraws from her the approval of the world, especially Daddy, and turns her world upside down: an injury to her eye that blinds and disfigures her when she is eight years old. Almost dispassionately, as if she is keeping tight rein on a flood of emotion inside her, she describes the loss of vision in her right eye resulting from a BB pellet shot from her brother's gun: "There is a tree growing from underneath the porch that climbs past the railing to the roof. It is the last thing my right eye sees I watch as its trunk, its branches, and then its leaves are blotted out by the rising blood" (387). With a little more emotion, she describes the real impact of this accident on her. "But it is really how I look that bothers me most. Where the BB pellet struck there is a glob of whitish scar tissue, a hideous cataract…. Now when I stare at people … they will stare back. Not at the cute' little girl, but at her scar. For six years I do not stare at anyone, because I do not raise my head" (387). In this way Walker marks her withdrawal from the world, her fear of people's disgust, her anticipation of taunts, of being called a "one-eyed bitch" (388). She remembers with particular pain her father on that fateful day: "I consider that day the last time my father … chose me, and that I suffered and raged inside because of this" (391). Tersely she sums up her feeling about her eye at age twelve: "I do not pray for sight. I pray for beauty" (389).
The essay also records her sister and mother's ignorance of this accident's impact on her psyche. Years later Walker asks them whether she changed after the accident, and their answer, "You did not change,"' becomes a haunting refrain in the essay, repeated after she records each event that reveals how much the accident damaged her emotionally. Each repetition of this sentence underscores for readers the insensitivity of others to the emotional effects of Walker's disfigurement and Walker's pain at their insensitivity. With the help of her brother Bill, not the brother who injured her eye but the only family member who understands her "feelings of shame and ugliness" (389), Walker has surgery to remove the white blob, which transforms her at age fourteen into an outgoing, attractive, successful high school student again.
Then Walker's narrative jumps ahead to the recent past of Walker the successful writer, revealing persistent self-consciousness about her eye as she is about to be photographed for the cover of a magazine and her anxiety about how her three-year-old daughter will react to her eye. So far, Walker's piece sounds like a conventionally structured autobiographical essay; this is not to minimize its power and interest, which derive from its painfully personal tone, so personal that I almost felt like a voyeur when I read it. Yet I think its interest and power increase as Walker goes on to stretch the confines of the autobiographical essay. Sandwiched between the recollections of the photo session and her daughter's view of her eye, creating a bridge between them, is a lyrical passage where Walker finally moves beyond the accident and her appearance to the accident and her eyesight. The passage celebrates vision and expresses her immense gratitude for the capacity of her good eye to reward her with the breathtaking view of the desert. A poem "On Sight" is placed in this lyrical passage, blurring the essay's generic lines, to mark her transformation from anger and shame into thankfulness and joy: "I am so thankful I have seen/ The Desert/ And the creatures in the desert/ And the desert itself./ The desert has its own moon/Which I have seen/With my own eye" (391). A religious reverence for vision is conveyed in this psalm-like poem of joy.
The journey into joy of Walker's persona is completed as she moves from self-rejection to self-acceptance and integration of that part of herself that is an injured eye. She describes this movement in her final recollection through the medium of a dramatic dialogue, or rather, a partial dialogue and partial interior analysis of her response to Rebecca's words. Walker shares with readers her daughter's awed response to her eye: "Mommy, there's a world in your eye…. Mommy, where did you get that world in your eye?"' (393). Rebecca's words enable Walker to see the world which her eye has given her, an internal and external world of profound proportions: "There was a world in my eye. And I saw that it was possible to love it: that in fact, for all it had taught me of shame and anger and inner vision. I did love it" (393). In analyzing her response to Rebecca's word, Walker finally realizes that who she is is inseparable from her eye, and that her eye has made her who she is: this eye is "deeply suitable to my personality and even characteristic of me" (393). By accepting her scarred eye as part of herself, she heals the emotional sears of thirty years. Walker's personal essay could end conventionally here with this analysis of her response to her daughter's words and her assessment of the change in her attitude toward herself.
However, Walker decides instead to add a lyrical coda to her essay, in which she celebrates both the exhilaration of her self-acceptance—describing it as a physical embrace through music and dance metaphors—and also the exhilaration of literary freedom from rigid generic categories. In the coda, she orchestrates a dance scene within her unconscious, a dream filled with psychically resonant symbols that demand interpretation, as a poem would: "That night I dream I am dancing to Stevie Wonder's song Always'…. As I dance, whirling and joyous, happier than I've ever been in my life, another bright-faced dancer joins me. We dance and kiss each other … The other dancer has obviously come through all right, as I have done. She is beautiful, whole and free. And she is also me" (293). The love song that energizes the scene, sung by a popular, blind, black, male musician, suggests Walker's newly achieved self-acceptance—sexually, racially and visually. The title of the song (as she hears it) indicates the permanence of her loving relationship with her dance partner, that persona formed after her accident, and it also suggests their enduring loyalty to each other. As the two dance, they marvel at the "wonder" (Stevie's and theirs) of their having "come through all right." They are strong, proud survivors, and their dance expresses almost a religious awe and gratitude at their survival. The embrace of the two in their whirling dance is also the celebration of Walker's newly achieved integrity. As John Clifford points out, we can read Walker's coda as depicting either her former "personal and racial schizophrenic behavior," or "the submerged pain of alienation," or her final "self acceptance [and the] joy of feeling integrated" (57). In fact, all three interpretations can stand, if we see recognition of the first two as the prelude to the third.
In the process of interpreting the coda, readers relinquish conventional distinctions between fiction and fact in autobiography: that is, they understand the "facts" of Walker's life as a consciously selected, arranged, and described artifice of her "life" (Clifford 56). They also relinquish distinctions between the personal essay and lyrical poetry, between analytical and affective writing. and between literature and music/choreography. Walker's dance metaphor cuts a swath across the dream-vision of her coda while her coda is helping to dismantle traditional generic considerations.
The trope of dance within the narratives of Marshall, Shange, and Walker thus liberates African American female protagonists and inspires their creators at the same time to dance their way into new literary forms to portray their heroines. These contemporary writers take their place among other African American writers who use dance scenes metaphorically, Nella Larsen, for example, creates a dance scene in Quicksand (1928) to describe Helga Crane's celebration of the negritude within herself; Helga dances to "a thumping of unseen tomtoms … the savage strains of [jungle]music" in Harlem (59). Themes of racial pride and spiritual contact with African ancestors are evident in Larsen's use of dance metaphor, even though her text's genre and narrative structure remain conventional, perhaps because she was writing in an early era of African American literary history.
Sixty years later, in Beloved (1987), Toni Morrison is able to use dance metaphor and experiment with form, galvanized by such writers as Marshall, Shange, and Walker. In Beloved, Baby Suggs "abandons referential discourse for the affective language of music and dance" (Cummings 568-69) when she dances in the Clearing. There she creates a semiotic language of maternal love for her race and exorcizes the effects of racial prejudice on them, wooing her brethren to dance together their self-love, communal love, and racial pride (88-89). Their dance becomes a religious ritual, a communal celebration of each individual's lovableness. As daringly as the unconventional Baby Suggs, Morrison ventures beyond conventional narrative forms such as Larsen's shaping an innovative, historicized, psychological narrative that is a linguistic tour de force. The narrative's piecemeal reconstructions of a central act of matricide and stream-of-consciousness passages reinterpret from a gendered perspective the history of slavery and its impact on male slaves, slave mothers, and motherless slave children. For many postmodern African American women writers like Morrison, such innovative literary forms seem to go hand in hand with celebration of the racial and gendered self, and with rejection of old standards, old attitudes, old constricting ways.
The feminist critic—black or white, male or female—can extend this creative liberation by doing what Deborah E. McDowell urges black feminist critics to do: studying and celebrating "the ways Black women writers employ literary devices in a distinct way" and comparing "the ways Black women writers create their own mythic structures" (196). This essay has studied, compared, and celebrated ways in which works by Paule Marshall, Ntozake Shange, and Alice Walker articulate truths about the multiple selves of African American women by creating new mythopoetic genres and tropes that mediate synergistically between the word and the dance.
Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon P, 1985. 159-63.
Clifford, John. "A Response Pedagogy for Noncanonical Literature." Reader 15 (spring 1986): 48-61.
Cummings, Katherine. "Reclaiming the Mother('s) Tongue: Beloved, Ceremony, Mothers and Shadows," College English 52 (September 1990): 552-69.
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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 melodious collages by Bearden (1912–1988) offer a lyrical counterpart to Shange's verse. A biography at book's end quotes the artist as saying that as a painter, "You must become a blues singer—only you sing on the canvas"; his dynamic compositions, listed by title on the final page, effectively echo the music, alternately somber and lively. Golden watercolor tones illuminate areas of lush green in the collage and watercolor Theresa; in patchwork assemblages, scraps of bright paper resemble aging advertisements peeling off a building's facade. A portrait of a trumpet player, Solo Interval, seems literally to smoulder—the mute resembles a chunk of glowing ash. Phrases from Shange's poem insinuate their own meaning into Bearden's visions for an unusually rewarding experience.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1042
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 feels] the texture for stuff: rice, skin, water…." She enters into fast intimacy, speaks with brutal honesty. It's a compelling picture, all the more so because Liliane's powerful sensuality and poignant aestheticism are so hard won, forged in the midst of the complex and conflicting demands on a woman born Black, born rich, growing up in the muddied world of Mississippi during the last stages of desegregation.
Like Shange (Betsey Brown, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo), Liliane is born into an upper middle class family, living in the shadow of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. Liliane and the other "young well-to-do Midwestern and Southeastern children of the Talented Tenth" grow up under a heavy burden of expectations: to be no less than the future leaders of their race. As Liliane says: "The issue was this issue: that we should crossbreed or intrafertilize and become the Beyond Belief Brood (offspring) of the Talented Tenth." Reproduction is politicized and Liliane's generation-educated, attractive-are, to their elite parents, an investment and a promise. That's a heavy weight to bear, and Liliane is a subtle and fascinating portrait of its consequences.
Recognizing the value—political and monetary—of his daughter's virginity, Liliane's father monitors her closely in an attempt to preserve it. We see her "sprawled and hugged up with Danny Stuyvesant," while her father approaches the house to rescue her. But rescue her from what? Liliane's experience with Danny is nothing less than loving, and what her father fears isn't taking place here—it already has, with the very men he esteems as potential husbands, "in a college frivolity known as gang banging."
Despite her father's chaperoning, Liliane wrestles principally with her mother, Sunday Bliss, over the conflicting pulls of sexual liberty and her responsibility to uphold "the race." Then, in an unforgivable act, Sunday Bliss abandons her family for a White man. Liliane's father arranges a false funeral to pronounce his wife dead—a decision Liliane later rationalizes in therapy:
The white people made my father kill off my mother. take my mother away from me. It was such an affront to his 'manhood,' his 'dignity,' that he couldn't allow my mother to live in the house with a white man in her heart.
And here, really, is the problem that haunts Liliane: Bliss's decision to leave her husband opens the door on a world of conflicting pulls. True, Bliss warns her daughter that "you girls have to realize the freedom you wage your most serious battle for is your own mind. No white man on this earth has the power or the right … to control a single inch of your brain." But the oppression is only intellectually the White man's: in Liliane's emotional experience—as well as her mother's—the enemy appears more immediately as her Black father, despite her love for him. And so Shange fleshes out the complexities with which Liliane lives; the complexities that Black women face in America, the divergent demands of feminism and the traditional roles of women in the Black community.
It is satisfying to see Liliane transcend these clashing conceptions of her identity. She will not be torn apart with the world around her; her art and her sensuality define her. Despite the pressures to capitalize on her birthright in Black society, then, Liliane holds on to her passionate, aesthetic vision of life.
Shange's portrait of Liliane brings into play all of her celebrated narrative tools—poetry, plays, musically syncopated language, song quotes, and dreams. She uses a variety of narrative viewpoints and voices, interweaves monologues and fragments from Liliane's friends. Like Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison, Shange is after a radical depiction of the full complexity of life for Black American women; her use of traditional forms of storytelling and a spectrum of voices aims to articulate the difficulty of a life lived between two loyalties—to one's race, to one's sex.
For the most part she succeeds, and even when she fails—as in her use of transcriptions from Liliane's psychoanalytic sessions—that failure is an endorsement of the power of the book's other, richer narrative tools. We're meant, through Liliane's sessions with her analyst, to experience her epiphanies as she has them. But these interludes lack the depth of the other chapters: when we listen in on Liliane's analysis, her "otherness" as a black woman disappears. She's raw, fully exposed, but, ironically, the rich dramatic insight of the other voices disappears and the intimacy we've come to feel is thwarted. It's as if we're eavesdropping rather than experiencing, and we feel estranged.
But even this narrative technique comes to life when Liliane talks of men. And there are a lot of them in the novel, an expanded African Diaspora; a French pianist from Guadeloupe, a bad boy from a prestigious Creole family, a Puerto Rican from the Lower East Side. Here, Liliane's affection is so simple, so natural, that it seems impossible that it could provide a setting for sexual politicking. But it does, and without any feeling of a roman d'idées. That's the triumph of Shange's writing: the language is so consistently penetrating and the intellectual content so dramatically important that the two become inseparable in Shange's portrait of Liliane.
Adapted to stage, the voices of this complex, beautiful novel would look like so many frozen figures waiting for the spotlight to bring them to life. The continuity relies on strands of stories that are passed from one character to the next—now a past lover, now a friend, now the probing psychoanalyst. Triumphantly, Liliane emerges whole from the cast of demanding characters and discordant voices.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 755
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 esthetic that seems more firmly rooted in modernism: its lush metaphors are akin to Jean Toomer's; its puckish delight in sexual imagery has a Man Ray feel.
As it happens, I'm big on Jean Toomer and Man Ray, and as a reviewer I suppose I should admit to my other prejudices. In fiction, I generally prefer the spare to the lush, the implicit to the explicit. I'm in favor of maximalism, not minimalism, but I like my emotions expressed in action, and get nervous when the narrative frets too much. That said, much of "Liliane"—which is certainly maximalist, lush, explicit and emotional—is moving and evocative. Ms. Shange, a playwright and poet, is best known for her 1976 hit play, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf." "Liliane" is her third and most formally playful novel. It is constructed as a psychoanalytic puzzle: Liliane's conversations with her analyst, punctuated by silences, alternate with first-person accounts from her childhood friends, lovers and Liliane herself. The collage form is particularly well suited to the story; we get the picture, piece by piece.
In the course of the narrative, Liliane makes art, travels, takes lovers, casts lovers aside, sustains her girlhood friends, mourns some of their deaths and celebrates. She grew up in the last days of segregation, when a little girl could think that if she went to church she "could be so much blood-soaked cloud and dust, scraggly blackened wood beam smoldering in my glowing flesh, so many colored buds, colored blossoms, to be picked at by coroners." Her father was a judge; she sprang from that social class whose decision whether to send a child to Princeton or Tennessee A & T "depended on how one's parents felt about uplifting the race." She was a colored girl—equal emphasis on each word—and her sense of self was shattered again and again by those who found that identity threatening.
Like any "black colored Negro person" in America, Liliane has seen too much violence and has lost too many loved ones. As a little girl visiting Mississippi, she witnessed a (strangely abbreviated) Klan attack, and as a teen-ager she was set upon by Italian-Americans in Queens. (A friend says, "If you black in the 'burg you outta bounds.") Sawyer, the boy she had seen in her childhood as her "destiny," was shot four times in the head by "somebody from East St. Louis," and Liliane says that he "died just like the little hoodlum boys I grew up with who lost all they sense or all they bones in Vietnam or Oakland. Sawyer wasn't all he coulda been, maybe. But like Papa used to say, he was definitely one of us."
The identification "one of us" is a central concern as Liliane struggles to construct a vision of self. The phrase is apt: she is one, wholly herself, and she is part of her race, part of her sex. Her choice of a white lover turns out to be of tremendous significance.
The plot hinges on revelations made in her psychoanalytic sessions concerning her mother's death. I admire Ms. Shange's decision to make the events and the cause of their revelation large enough for tragedy; if anything, the frenetic drama of the session in which we learn of her mother's disappearance could have been slowed down. The pacing here, and in the traumatizing racial attacks, is intentionally abrupt; the artistic reason for the speed is clear, but the reader is disoriented.
Ms. Shange takes pains to bring the novel to true resolution in the novel's most engaging character, one of Liliane's lovers, a photographer named Victor-Jesus Maria, who tells his part of the story in a voice that is emphatically male, Spanglish and empathetic. What a pleasure it is to hear Ntozake Shange singing in so many different keys, so many different tempos. Her "Liliane" is a dense, ambitious, worthy song.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525
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: Jean-Rene, Victor-Jesus, Sawyer, Rorie, Lollie, Bernadette, Hyacinthe are characters who slip in and out of the narrative as easily as Liliane plays approach-avoidance with her therapist. By juxtaposing reminiscence and psychoanalytic dialogue, the novel deepens the portrait of the troubled Liliane as she is shaped by the tumultuous canvas of her times. Liliane is a survivor of racism, sexism, and secrets kept by her father, but in Shange's sure hands she emerges triumphant, able to forgive and forge a future that encompasses both art and love. Women are not usually so fortunate.
The novel is structurally compelling as well. Therapy sessions pull us along with Liliane, who baits, flirts with, curses, and opens up to the appealingly calm and humane doctor who interprets her dreams and never condescends. These weekly encounters are framed by scenes from Liliane's childhood and recent history. In those, Shange allows different characters to take over the narrative. Liliane then is seen not only in her own voice but through the eyes of those who loved her. The men's limitations appear as each seeks to hold the artist in a picture of his own making. Like her father, Judge Parnell Lincoln, the men love her deeply, but they have rules which a woman breaks at great risk. This is ironic, of course, since the men are subject to the white world's rules, and yet (as Shange's works always remind) sexism transcends race. Nevertheless, this novel is about healing; Liliane is able to understand her father's actions toward her mother and not to fear her own love.
Liliane's heroine is sexy and funny, yet her story contains much pain and suffering. Ku Klux Klansmen, vicious Southern crackers, and hypocritical Northern liberals make appearances in her life, take away the innocence of youth, kill friends and lovers. How people preserve not only sanity but also decency and dignity in the midst of these givens is another of the book's triumphs. As Liliane reminds one of her friends, however, "There's so much more to life than what white folks have to do with."
The black and Hispanic characters are fully drawn; they are artists, musicians, lawyers, orchid growers, dancers—people who enrich their world with their many talents and gifts. Shange deftly demonstrates how much the country is losing by its schizophrenic attitudes and treatment of these citizens. Not a polemic, the novel nevertheless is political as well as poetic. Liliane joyfully celebrates the complexity of sexual relationships, the dynamics of family and friendship, and the emerging multicultural ethos that is America.