Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1290
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....
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