Ntozake Shange Shange, Ntozake (Vol. 25) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ntozake Shange 1948–

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

Shange's first major work, the choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, depicts the emotional and often suicidal despair of black women in an oppressive society. A reflection of her own emotional pain, Shange's feminist stance urges self-realization and independence for black women. Most critics praised the exciting theatricality of For Colored Girls but were disappointed in her more conventional play, Photography. They also felt that her adaptation of Mother Courage and Her Children failed to realize the complexity of Brecht's original drama.

(See also CLC, Vol. 8 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Toni Cade Bambara

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf] is a comfortably loose-strung series of portraits and narratives about women, black women…. (p. 36)

Blisteringly funny, fragile, droll and funky, lyrical, git down stompish, the play celebrates survival. The portraits are not case studies of stunning wrecks hollering about paid dues and criminal overcharges. The pieces are not booze-based blues and ballads about lost love and missing teeth. The Shange brand of keepin' on does not spring from the foot-caught-in-the-trap-gnawin'-ankle-free-oh-my-god school of moaning. She celebrates the capacity to master pain and betrayals with wit, sister-sharing, reckless daring, and flight and forgetfulness if necessary. She celebrates most of all women's loyalties to women.

One of the best orchestrated pieces on that dodgy subject involves three players who weave in and out of each other's lines, laying out a history of relationships: embrace, recoil, regather, resolve. (pp. 36, 38)

What is curious about the work is that though men appear exclusively as instruments of pain, there is no venom, no resorting to a Queen of Hearts solution—Off with his head! No godlike revenge, no godlike forgiving. Hell, some things are unforgivable. The women of the various pieces suck their teeth, storm, sass, and get on with the miracle of living….

The "voice" of Colored/Rainbow defies and encourages theatrics. It contains a funkiness and a grand opera eloquence that we use when we self-consciously share pain. (p. 38)

Toni Cade Bambara, "'For Colored Girls'—And White Girls Too," in Ms. (© 1976 Ms. Magazine Corp.), Vol. V. No. 3, September, 1976, pp. 36, 38.

Martin Gottfried

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Good is good, theater is theater and Shange's work ["For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf"] is the kind the stage was created for. There is no comparing the trust and presence of its power with any other kind of art in any other medium (nor any need or sense in comparison anyhow).

The show … [contains] the author's narratives, poems and dialogues, all designed to, in one way or another, "sing a black girl's song…. sing a song of life, she's been dead so long."

The overriding tone of these monologues is bitter but assertive, imbued with a new-discovered pride, reaching toward exultation. The anger is over time and pain wasted rather than an expected, indefinite continuation of it.

There is some lack of variety in the selection of material; an excess of concern with romance and sex, music and dancing, even considering that the work is about young women. Within that limitation, however, the writing is regularly beautiful and often exquisite. The arrangement of the material for stage presentation is stage wise….

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 in a Broadway theater except for Melvin van Peebles' "Ain't No Way to Die a Natural Death." This is truth, energy and strength, theater on the highest level, musical and choreographic to its roots.

Martin Gottfried, "'Rainbow' over Broadway." in New York Post (reprinted by permission of the New York Post; © 1976, New York Post Corporation), September 16, 1976, (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXVII, No. 16. September 13-19, 1976. p. 201).

Richard Eder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The poetry of perception is not the same as the poetry of drama. In ""For Colored Girls," Ntozake Shange arranged her acid and lyrical perceptions into a fine, loose-jointed set of meditations and sketches.

They had the design and rhythm of a song-cycle; the pieces were funny, exuberant or acrid, and Miss Shange's remarkable poetic diction took the role of music in binding them together. Themes would appear and reappear, but a formal dramatic structure was not attempted or needed.

Miss Shange is something besides a poet but she is not—at least not at this stage—a dramatist. More than anything else, she is a troubadour. She declares her fertile vision of the love and pain between black women and black men in outbursts full of old malice and young cheerfulness. They are short outbursts, song-length; her characters are perceived in flashes, in illuminating vignettes.

Some of these things are found in "A Photograph; A Study of Cruelty," her second major work…. But the work is forced, and finally broken by its form. The perceptions are made to do the donkey-work of holding up what attempts to be a whole dramatic structure, and they fail.

The central character in "A Photograph" is Michael…. She is clearly the personage with whom the author identifies; she is how the black woman in America is to be, and the other, inevitably shadowy characters, are misleaders or mistakes.

Michael is a free and sovereign spirit, loving but unsubmissive to men, ambition or the pressures of American society….

She has settled … for Sean a photographer just on the brink of becoming rich and famous, and interviewed. It is his bitterness she loves, she says, but things are not so simple. Sean is surrounded by an array of tempters; all of them caricatures of how black people, as Miss Shange sees it, go wrong….

Sean is vital and talented, but weak. His confidence rests upon his success…. and his success rests upon his photography.

The play's creaky plot deals with the collapse of his selfesteem….

Everything, and every character, is really set up as a prop against which Michael can be wonderful….

It is a grave and captivating seer that Miss Shange has created. But she didn't need an unconvincing play as background….

Richard Eder, "Sovereign Spirit." in The New York Times, Section C (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 22, 1977, p. 11.

Harriet Gilbert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Ntozake] Shange's wit, her fierce anger, her sensuality and, most of all, her masterful, surprising use of language were of such potency that they bestrode, not only the Atlantic, but the gulf between her race and mine.

nappy edges, Shange's latest book of poetry resumes a great many of the themes of for colored girls …: love, lust, music, friendship, the condition of being a woman, of being black. It even contains three or four of the earlier poems, in a slightly altered form…. The three introductory pieces and several of the poems themselves are bloated almost beyond readability by Shange's current self-consciousness of herself as a celebrity and as an ambassador of black, feminist writing.

I do say "almost," however, because nothing that she writes is ever entirely unreadable, springing, as it does, from such as intense honesty, from so fresh an awareness of the beauty of sound and of vision, from such mastery of words, from such compassion, humor and intelligence. From this soil, no matter how entangled and confused they might grow, or how much pruning they might need, the plants must always be healthy.

And those many poems in nappy edges whose power has not become enmeshed in self-consciousness (the rhapsodic songs of love; the living portraits; the attacks, lethal in their wit and in the niceness of their observation, on male society, white society, hypocrisy and mediocrity) are at least as potent, impressive and astonishing as any in for colored girls…. (pp. 1, 4)

Shange's new book is crowded with such joys. That the reader must occasionally push through overgrowth in order to find them is due to no lack on Shange's part but rather to an overabundance—of talent, energy, cultural resources, ambition and daring. (p. 4)

Harriett Gilbert, "Somewhere over the Rainbow," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), October 15, 1978, pp. 1, 4.

Christopher Sharp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ntozake Shange's latest musical work … is a workshop production, and it looks it. "Spell #7: A Geechee Quick Magic Trance Manual" is a fecund garden that badly needs trimming. Curiously, the weaker scenes in this musical essay appear to be edited far better than the strong numbers. The best scenes are diluted by Shange's attempts to say one thing in many different forms as she can.

This musical evening is set in a bar-restaurant hangout for black theatrical performers. Although the work focuses on individual poetic soliloquys,… this is more of a play than anything Shange has had staged in the past. At least the actors are talking to each other here in intervals and suggesting that the words have some relevance to the action.

But Shange makes it clear that she values her verse much more than she values her characters. Thus the first act of the musical can be confusing when we see characters that show some promise suddenly change like chameleons when they deliver different kinds of soliloquys. But by the second act, we have learned what to expect and we see the lines finally leaving an impact on us.

Christopher Sharp, "'Spell #7: A Geechee Quick Magic Trance Manual'," in Women's Wear Daily (copyright 1979, Fairchild Publications), June 4, 1979 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XL, No. 20, November 19, 1979, p. 109).

Don Nelsen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ntozake Shange's "Spell #7" is black magic. It is 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.

The word that best describes Shange's works, which are not plays in the traditional sense, is power. Drama is inherent in each of her poetic sentences because the words hum with a vibrant urgency that shriek to be absorbed now, now, NOW! She writes as though there is not a moment to be lost and the nine players … deliver her ripostes to American life with a zeal that grabs and shakes the lapels.

The irony attendant upon being black in a white society is struck immediately…. [Player #1 provides the message:] You should rejoice in the richness that is yours even though it is different.

What follows is a tapestry of variations on this theme, akin in structure to Shange's "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide," woven in a combination of dialogue, dance and song…. What divorces it from the ordinary is Shange's ability to make the word flesh, to fuse idea and character so that it comes out humanity….

"Spell #7" is a piece of biting sorcery.

Don Nelsen, "Shange Casts a Powerful 'Spell'," in Daily News, New York (© 1979, New York News, Inc.), July 16, 1979 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XL, No. 20, November 19, 1979, p. 108).

Richard Eder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Poetry is as contagious as poison ivy though less prevalent. Look at the response these days to the dramatic poems in Ntozake Shange's remarkable "Spell No. 7."… [The] sketches—lyrical, wry, painful and comically prosaic by turn—… invaded the audience. The place was alive with response, but it wasn't the ordinary applause or laughter of an audience that is pleased or moved. There was a kind of rumination, a repeating of lines, even a few tentative essays at embroidering them….

[Sometimes] the springy rhetoric and response of these poetic vignettes about how it feels to be black … have the liveliness and stem-winding buildup of first-rate preaching. But if there is any event that Miss Shange's best work approaches, it is something more familiar in other countries—particularly the Soviet Union—than in this one. I am thinking of those highly charged poetry recitals in which a Voznesensky would advance toward the emotions of his audiences head-on, not merely giving words to what was buried or half-buried inside them, but providing them with the public emblem of a man speaking out.

Miss Shange's performers enter as if they were actors gathering in an after-hours bar, but under tutelage of … [the] compere, they hurl themselves into their poetic representations…. [The compere] has announced that he is the son of a magician who gave up his trade when a black child asked him to perform a spell to make him white…. [He then] proposes a different kind of spell: setting his performers to speaking, he will demonstrate that there is pride and rejoicing in being black. Poetry, of course, demonstrates nothing, not even rejoicing; but it can transmit it. Miss Shange's does, and not only to the black members of the audience….

Miss Shange's vignettes proceed with excess, that of the classic tall story: an image is taken, worked up comically, exaggerated and blown up some more. Each vignette is a circus vehicle; clown after clown climbs out, past all reasonable capacity. First they are comic clowns, then ironic clowns, and finally their message is pure pain; or would be except that art redeems the burden it carries by the raffishness with which it carries it.

Richard Eder, "Miss Shange's Rousing Homilies," in The New York Times (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 22, 1979, p. D3.

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ntozake Shange, equally untalented as a poet and as a playwright, seems to have made it on the strength of being a black and a woman. Belonging to one formerly underprivileged class is an advantage; to two, a gold mine. Further, she thrives on the gap between poetry and drama. Poetry publishers may just think that she has solid achievements as a dramatist; if the drama critics raved about her For Colored Girls …, it was partly because they labored under the delusion that anything so sprawling, pretentious, and bellyaching must be poetry.

Indeed, Miss Shange has never even managed to write a real play. A Photograph came nearest to being one, but was laughed right off the boards even by...

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Michael S. Harper

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ntozake Shange's "Nappy Edges" is too long a book; there are far too many poems that borrow from and reflect upon popular culture without dramatizing the inner conflicts of many of Miss Shange's characters. But she is a highly literate writer, capable of expressing anger at the mistreatment of women by means of an artful reference to some popular song or a scene from a movie.

[The] idiom is at once dramatic and restrained, but Miss Shange seldom offers insights as literate as those expressed in the epigraphs scattered through "Nappy Edges," though one from Anaïs Nin—"all unfulfilled desires are imprisoned children"—is well chosen and brought to full life in the opening section of "closets."… Miss Shange's poetic mode consists of sharp, intense vignettes with a minimum of commentary; when she ventures into longer poems the lines become slack and prosaic, her references too private to express her themes.

Michael S. Harper, "Three Poets," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 21, 1979, p. 22.∗

John Russell Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf,] Ntozake Shange sets out to evoke the plight of black women and at the same time somehow to celebrate them and their triumphs in life through a series of monologues, usually taken straight by one of the seven players, sometimes illustrated by one while another speaks. She sees herself very much as a poet, and that may well be the case. But she is farthest from proving it when she most desperately strains to do so. Which, unfortunately, is often in the most prominent parts of the show, like the opening and closing numbers of the two parts.

In these, and every now and then elsewhere, she tends to fall into a loose,...

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Mel Gussow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Adaptations of classics are often based on a simple transfer in period; costumes and accents change, but almost everything else remains the same. In direct contrast, Ntozake Shange's new version of Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children,"… is a true cultural and political transplant….

[Miss Shange] has moved the play from Europe during the Thirty Years' War in the early 17th century to the American frontier during the Reconstruction in the late 19th century. Mother Courage is now a black woman …, twice emancipated and selling her canteen of wares to troops during the Plains wars against the Indians. Necessarily, there are certain relocation problems, but on her own terms Miss Shange has...

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John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss Shange was content to ruin one genre at a time, say poetry or drama. Now, [in Mother Courage and Her Children], she rewrites and makes ridiculous both American history and Bertolt Brecht at one foul swoop. Brecht plausibly perceived the Thirty Years' War as a nasty excuse for otherwise identical people who happened to be Protestants or Catholics to slaughter one another while ruthless and purblind speculators, such as the vivandière Mother Courage, made and lost their boodle, lost and lost their children. And learned nothing from it.

Shange has invented an American Thirty Years' War by gluing together a variety of discrete and diverse conflicts into one big Schwittersian collage....

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Frank Rich

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The text of Miss Shange's "Mother Courage" … raises some troubling questions. What are an adapter's responsibilities to the original work? What are a playwright's obligations to history? Is it right to call a play "Mother Courage" when it in many ways violates the spirit of the drama we associate with that title? The motivations behind Miss Shange's adaptation may well be pure, but the result is a case study of what can happen when an exercise in literary adaptation goes wildly astray.

Certainly the adaptation cannot be objected to in principle. Brecht would have approved; he was found of rewriting classic theatrical texts himself. And certainly Miss Shange … would seem the ideal candidate to...

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Carol P. Christ

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A gutsy, down-to-earth poet, Ntozake Shange gives voice to the ordinary experiences of Black women in frank, simple, vivid language, telling the colored girl's story in her own speech patterns. Shange's gift is an uncanny ability to bring the experience of being Black and a woman to life. Those who hear or read her choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf may feel overwhelmed by so much reality, so much pain, so much resiliency, so much life force. They may even feel they have actually lived through the stories they have heard.

Like Adrienne Rich, Shange is acutely aware of the nothingness experienced by women in a society defined by men. But Shange...

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Sandra Hollin Flowers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are as many ways of looking at Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf as there are hues in a rainbow. One can take it as an initiation piece…. Colored Girls also might be seen as a black feminist statement in that it offers a black woman's movement. Still another approach is to view it as a literary coming-of-age of black womanhood in the form of a series of testimonies which, in Shange's words, "explore the realities of seven different kinds of women." Indeed, the choreopoem is so rich that it lends itself to multiple interpretations, which vary according to one's perspective and experiences.

I would suggest, however, that the...

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