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.