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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.)
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[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.
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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).
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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.
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[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.
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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).
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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).
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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.
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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 reviewers benighted enough to have extolled For Colored Girls. The current Spell #7 is every bit as bad as For Colored Girls, and though the cast is no longer all female, and the hatred of men not quite so obvious, the formula is the same: long monologues (occasionally dialogues, but nondramatic ones) recited or sung by a character or two, with the others intermittently chiming in—a directorial ruse meant to make recitation appear more theatrical. Dancing, too, is thrown in for the same purpose—with a dancer cavorting in front of a speaker, without any visible connection between the words and dance movements, except their shared triteness….
[The various set pieces] are supposed to show, without magic, the beauty of blackness and the nobility of negritude; they are mostly gripes of one sort or another. The male characters are either projections of Shange herself (the Poet, the Magician) or, once again, unworthy: philanderers attempting to make black women traveling in Europe, a black youth trying to seduce a woman during a subway ride, and the like. The women tell various tales of woe, sometimes shot through with a bit of satire for which Shange has a slight aptitude….
Most revealing is a monologue originally delivered, significantly, by Shange herself…. A woman who wants to have a child she would name Myself does have a boy and does so name him. But when, outside her body, Myself begins to live an independent life, she kills him. A maniacal egocentricity pervades Spell #7 as it did For Colored Girls.
John Simon, "Fainting Spell," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1979 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 12, No. 30, July 30, 1979, p. 57.
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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.∗
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[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, dithyrambic style that Dylan Thomas would have recognised. The words twist and turn in an anguish of frustrated communication, and it all sounds as phoney as hell. And yet when she relaxes a bit, comes down from her literary high horse and lets experience speak for itself, the result can be funny and touching and, yes, in its spare vividness actually poetic. Poetry, after all, comes from a fundamental poetic vision, not from trying to be a poet. (p. 16)
[Colored Girls] is clearly by a black, and about facets of the black experience; it is clearly by a woman, and about the experience of being a woman. But it is not much at any time, about the two together, functionally connected. In interviews Ntozake Shange talks about specifically black kinds of male chauvinism, about the problems of being a woman especially within Third World conditions and patterns of behavior. But little if any of that comes over in the show. It is as though she feels in some way that by following out her feminist logic she would be betraying blacks to the white audience by being specially critical of black men, while to sing uncomplicatedly the praises of negritude she would be betraying her special role as woman. This division of mind leaves whole areas mushy and unexplored….
All the same Ms Shange, when not being too grand about her literary aspirations, is clearly a writer to watch…. (p. 17)
John Russell Taylor, "Reviews: 'For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf'" (© copyright John Russell Tayor, 1979; reprinted with permission of A D Peters & Co Ltd), in Plays and Players, Vol. 27, No. 3, December, 1979, pp. 16-17.
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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 performed a venturesome feat of reinterpretation.
An adaptation must find equivalents to details of plot, character and atmosphere, and it is here where Miss Shange has been perspicacious. Scene by scene, almost line by line, she has translated Brecht into a black idiom, names, places, slang and aphorisms, without losing the essence of the play or of the heroine. This woman remains an unsinkable ship, making compromises but never forsaking first principles. A war profiteer, she is desperately trying to survive an endless siege—and to keep her family intact. Her "courage" is in her indomitability; nothing vanquishes her, not even the loss of her children….
One shortcoming of Miss Shange's effort is that she is unable to probe the contradictory roles of the black man on the frontier, including the fact that he was fighting against the Indian, who should have been his natural ally. Racism on the plains would make a challenging subject for an original play. In this regard, Miss Shange is restricted, rather than released, by Brecht, although when possible she takes some liberty….
Miss Shange's vision of "Mother Courage" can stand alone as a considerable dramatic achievement.
Mel Gussow, "Stage: 'Mother Courage'," in The New York Times (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 14, 1980, p. 20.
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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. We never know who is fighting whom (North, South, blacks, whites, Indians, the U.S. Army, ranchers, the KKK appear among the combatants whom you cannot tell apart even with the program) or exactly what for—though, unlike in Brecht, there is value judgment: Blacks and Indians are felt to be superior to whites, though why they massacre one another is not gone into. In the late nineteenth century Courage's anachronistic wagon is already a sentimental, adorably quixotic conceit; real capitalism had already become very much bigger business. Issues are further muddied by one of this black Courage's children being half Indian, another half white. And, misunderstanding Brecht, Shange has made Courage into a basically lovable figure. (pp. 80-1)
John Simon, "Avaunt-Garde and 'Taint Your Wagon'," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1980 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 13, No. 21, May 26, 1980, pp. 79-81.
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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 redo "Mother Courage." Like Brecht, she is a poet with a radicalized political consciousness. It can even be argued that Miss Shange is entitled to move the play's setting from 17th-century middle Europe to another time and place; it all depends on how and why the relocation is done. By resetting Brecht's play in post-Civil War America and making the title character an emancipated slave, Miss Shange has landed in a quagmire. She ends up betraying Brecht and distorting American history. (p. D5)
[Miss Shange's] "Mother Courage" is set in the Southwest territories of 1866–1877, and it principally concerns a disconnected series of skirmishes in which American troops completed the clearing of the West by slaughtering the Indians.
In contrast to Brecht's Thirty Years War—a religious struggle waged by equally culpable antagonists who together wreaked havoc on a helpless peasantry—the battles of Miss Shange's play are conflicts involving clearly defined good guys and bad guys. This immediately alters Brecht's point in a substantial way. In his "Mother Courage," war (or, for that matter, peace) is a meaningless state that serves no purpose except to perpetuate a malevolent ruling class. It doesn't matter which side Mother Courage has financial dealings with, for both sides are the enemy. Everyone is out to grind her down; she is the trapped, innocent victim of an entire system.
In Miss Shange's version, Mother Courage is thrust into a class and racial war where the antagonists are anything but interchangeable. The bad guys are the government soldiers, the ruling class, and their victims are a defenseless proletariat, the Indians. As a result, Miss Shange's protagonist, unlike Brecht's, does have a moral choice. And for her Mother Courage, the choice should be clear; she has, after all, just lived through the Civil War. If she now does business with the oppressive Army, she is a villain; if she refuses, she is a heroic resister. Either way, Brecht's complex work is transformed into a simplistic melodrama about right and wrong.
Worse still, Miss Shange's Mother Courage, as well as her two sons, capitulate to the bad guys. The sons (one of whom is half-Indian, no less) join up with the Colored Cavalry—the so-called Buffalo Soldiers who were recruited by whites to fight against the Indians—and the mother does business with their superiors. While these actions parallel the text of the original play, their meaning becomes quite different in the context Miss Shange has chosen. When Brecht's Mother Courage says "in business you ask what price, not what religion," it is a nihilistic fact of life. When Miss Shange's Mother Courage, at the same point in the play, implies that she would just as soon trade with rebel whites as anyone else, she is consciously siding against her own interests. She is no longer a pawn of historical forces beyond her control but an active counter-revolutionary siding with whites against her own people.
Perhaps Miss Shange would insist that her Mother Courage had to capitulate to whites to survive, just as Brecht's Mother Courage had to serve all comers to keep going. But is it really true that freed slaves, in the aftermath of the Civil War, had no option but to become collaborators in a new campaign of white genocide against the Indians? It would take a rather jaundiced reading of American history to claim so. (pp. D5, D33)
How did Miss Shange paint herself into this corner? To fulfill her mission of resetting "Mother Courage" in black America, she seems to have seized on some events that superficially correspond to those of Brecht's play without carefully considering how those events would square with the true meaning of the original text. Once the events were chosen, they became an idée fixe from which she refused to depart. By grafting far-from-representative black sellouts on to the epic theater of "Mother Courage," Miss Shange has condemned a whole generation of black people by inference. If a white had written this play, he would have, quite rightfully, been accused of racism.
If Miss Shange had reshaped the entire work, she might have solved some of these problems. But she has not done that; she has only retranslated the play into black English. Perhaps if there were major white characters in this "Mother Courage"—her versions of [Southern] landowner and capitalists or the greedy bigots of Lillian Hellman's "Little Foxes"—we could see why some blacks did have no choice but to become collaborators with their enemy. This fact can't be explained away by the social system dramatized in Brecht's play—which is still the only one to be found in Miss Shange's version—because the system that prevailed in the Thirty Years War is not an accurate description of Reconstruction America. So confusing is Miss Shange's mixture of Brecht and Indian wars that on the night I saw her play, an audience of blacks and whites was actually cheering Mother Courage at the end. This shouldn't happen in an honest production of Brecht's drama—one that upholds the writer's so-called "alienation effect"—and it certainly shouldn't happen in Miss Shange's version, where Mother Courage is demonstrably evil.
However much the audience might blamelessly misread it in the theater, it seems that Miss Shange really did set out to concoct a "Mother Courage" that vilified its central characters. In an article in The Village Voice of May 19, she says so….
She adds that by tackling Brecht she would also resolve a personal dilemma: She had forgotten about her own work and was involved "in fruitless combat with myself" about "the works of dead white men." On this point she is entirely right. Such combat is fruitless. A black writer indeed has no obligation to answer to white writers, living or dead, and for Ntozake Shange it seems a waste of talent and energy to do so. (p. D33)
Frank Rich, "'Mother Courage' Transplanted," in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 15, 1980, pp. D5, D33.
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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 is also aware of a double burden of pain and negation suffered by women who are Black in a society defined by white men—where Black women are not even granted the ambivalent recognition some white women receive for youth and beauty or for being wives and mothers of white men. Shange's poem also reflects the double strength Black women have had to muster to survive in a world where neither being Black nor being a woman is valued.
Though Shange's forte is the vivid re-creation of experience, for colored girls is more than the simple telling of the Black girl's story. It is also a search for the meaning of the nothingness experienced and a quest for new being. In Shange's poems the experience of nothingness is born of the double burden of being Black and a woman, but the stories she tells bring a shock of recognition to every woman who has given too much of herself to a man. The heart of the experience of nothingness in for colored girls is a woman's loss and debasement of self for love of a man. But what makes Shange's poems more than just another version of Lady Sings the Blues—a theme of sorrow and survival too familiar to Black women (and white women)—is Shange's refusal to accept the Black woman's sorrow as a simple and ultimate fact of life. She probes for a new image of the Black woman that will make the old images of the colored girl obsolete. Shange envisions Black women "born again" on the far side of nothingness with a new image of Black womanhood that will enable them to acknowledge their history while moving beyond it to "the ends of their own rainbows."
For colored girls began as a series of separate poems, but as it developed Shange came to view "these twenty-odd poems as a single statement, a choreopoem."… In a sense the dialogical form of Shange's play re-creates the consciousness-raising group of the women's movement, where in sharing experiences and stories, women learn to value themselves, to recognize stagnant and destructive patterns in their lives, to name their strengths, and to begin to take responsibility for their lives. The sense of dialogue in Shange's choreopoem is an invitation to the women in the audience to tell their stories. What emerges is a tapestry of experiences, interwoven with a sense of plurality and commonality.
The title of the choreopoem provokes questions. Why did Shange use the outdated term "colored," which Black people abandoned as oppressive in the sixties? How is the rainbow enough? And what does a rainbow have to do with suicide? In a television interview, Shange explained why she used "colored girls" in the title of her poem. She spoke of the importance of Black self-definition, of taking pride in dark skin and African heritage. She said that her own name, "Ntozake," is an African name she chose as a way of affirming her African roots. But, she said, it was also important to affirm her American ancestors. She recalled that her grandmother's last words to her were that she was a precious "little colored girl." Thinking about this made Shange realize that "colored" was not only a term used by whites to define Blacks, but also a term of endearment in the Black community. To reclaim the name "colored girl" was to reclaim her relationship to her grandmother, a part of her story. The juxtaposition of "colored girl" with "rainbow" enables Black women to see the varied tones of their skin as a reflection of the glorious hues of the rainbow, not as a color to be borne in shame. And, though colored girls have considered suicide because they have been abused by white society and Black men, this need no longer be the case. "The rainbow" is now understood as an image of their own beauty, and it "is enuf."
Shange further explained the meaning of the enigmatic last line of her title, when she said, "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." Here Shange describes a kind of mystical insight—being does not require justification, it just is. Within the poem, Shange restates the last line of the title, "but are movin to the ends of their own rainbows."… This restatement extends the mystical insight further: after recognizing their grounding in being, Black women must begin to create their own reality, for example, by creating symbols like the rainbow to express their infinite beauty.
For colored girls begins with a poem spoken by the lady in brown about the importance of naming and celebrating experience in song and story…. Only when her song is sung, her story told, will the Black woman know her potential. She will be "born" as a human being for the first time, because she will be aware of herself as a person with value and a range of choices. (pp. 97-100)
In order to sing a colored girl's song, Shange must re-create the language of her experience, a language which, in its concrete particularity, has almost never been spoken. Black women's voices have been negated by the standard (white) English grammar that has forced Black people to fit their experiences into alien language patterns. Black women's experiences have also been negated by a literary tradition that celebrates the experiences of white men. Shange ignores standard grammar in her effort to capture the nuances of Black women's speech patterns and experience…. The idiom of this Black girl's life is reflected in speech patterns, choice of words, details of description, spelling, and punctuation (or rather lack of it)…. Shange's poems also reflect her notion that Black speech is close to music, an understanding expressed in the mixed genre choreopoem in which music, dance, and spoken word are woven together. (pp. 100-02)
The poems in for colored girls, when taken as a whole, describe a spiritual journey through the particularities of a Black woman's experience. In this journey an alternation of joy, despair, and reconstitution of self proceeds circularly, musically, rather than linearly. Shange's women move through hope, defeat, and rebirth in several of the poem sequences, until in the last the lady in red experiences a crescendo of despair that leads to a dramatic rebirth of self and a more certain awareness of the self's grounding in larger powers of life and being. The poems in for colored girls celebrate the Black woman's life force and capacity for love. They confront her defeat and celebrate her resilience. They provide her with alternatives to the image of the Black woman as either helpless and defeated, a "sorry" colored girl, or as strong and resilient, "impervious to pain."… In her search for new images, the Black woman cannot simply adapt images from the white man, the Black man, or the white woman, because none of these images of being human reflect the fullness of her humanity, the affirmation of both her color and her sex. To search for new images of self is to ask anew the old questions: What is it to be human? Do we need relationships? Sex? What is the relation between body and soul? Shange seeks answers to these questions as she explores the Black woman's experience in her poems.
The first several poems in for colored girls create a mood of youthful optimism, playfulness, and joy in being alive. The serious note of the opening poem is interrupted by the singing of the childhood song, "mama's little baby," the reciting of a playful rhyme, and a game of tag. This lighter note, which carries over into the next two poems, expresses Shange's perception that the Black girl's childhood does not always prepare her for the struggles and hard times of her adult experience. (pp. 103-04)
["Graduation nite"] tells the story of a girl's first sexual initiation. While the girl's lower class and sometimes violent environment … is evident in her tale, the story is a positive one. Graduation was an exuberant rite of passage for her, and she sang inside…. (p. 104)
The following poem, "now I love somebody more than," tells the story of the lady in blue's teen-age fascination with the Caribbean rhythms of Puerto Rican musician Willie Colon. Though this poem too has its serious moments, including a reference to Black self-hatred and color caste systems …, the poem as a whole is joyous. Beginning with the first "ola" … and moving through vivid descriptions of her dancing …, the poem is an invocation to the spirit of music and dance that has brought so much joy to a colored girl's life. (pp. 104-05)
While the first two poems celebrate Black women's life force, the next poem, "no assistance," tells of their abuse. The lady in red tells how she loved a man who didn't appreciate her…. What makes the story of the lady in red more than the age-old female complaint about abuse by men is humor, anger, and insight…. Seeing her actions with humor creates a distance from pain and allows her to express her anger and to take responsibility for ending the affair…. Because she sees herself as responsible for letting herself be abused, she sees her power to refuse to be a victim…. The anger expressed in her last words to this man is the anger of a woman who has realized she doesn't need to waste her time on a man who doesn't value her. Her story calls up feelings of pain and outrage that such an obviously creative and funny woman has not been able to find a man to appreciate and love her. (pp. 105-06)
The next two poems speak of painful violations of women's bodies in rape and hack abortion. All the women speak the rape poem together, affirming that unfortunately this is not an individual story…. The picture created by Shange's poem is brutal but true. The stark simple lines of the poem and their harsh rhythm contrast effectively with the mood of joy expressed in the first two poems and deepen the feelings of pain and outrage that were introduced in "no assistance." Shange creates a mood, preparing the audience to experience ever deeper nothingness in a Black woman's story.
In "abortion cycle #1" Shange re-creates a woman's terror during an illegal abortion. The poem begins cryptically as four of the women shriek "eyes," "mice," "womb," "nobody," evoking a feeling of terror. The rest of the poem, spoken by the lady in blue, is a collage of images of pain, disgust, fear, shame…. These images capture the feeling of violation, the pain of an abortion without anesthesia: it felt like something huge and powerful was inside her womb, like death was coming out of all her orifices…. This woman's secret shame recalls the opening poem, where it was stated that as long as the Black woman's story is not told, she will hear nothing but "maddening screams / / & the soft strains of death."… In sharing her story, the lady in blue can begin to break out of her isolation.
In the next several poems, "sechita," "toussaint," and "one," Shange turns the audience to three individual stories which, while not without their own painful dimensions, are not as devastating as the stories of rape and back-room abortion. (pp. 106-08)
The alternation of naming Black women's strengths and naming their abuse and suffering continues in the next poem, "i useta live in the world." In this poem Shange contrasts the universe of free Africa with its "waters ancient from accra / tunis / / cleansin me / feedin me" … with Harlem where "my ankles are covered in grey filth / / from the puddle neath the hydrant."… Black women in Harlem not only live in poverty and filth but also suffer verbal and physical abuse from men who assuage their shattered egos by abusing women…. The ultimate degradation she suffers is the knowledge that she must become violent like her surroundings if she is to survive…. (pp. 109-10)
The next poem, "pyramid," considers women's complicity in their oppression…. It is an old story of women considering men more important than their friendships with each other. In this case, the women betray a close bond between each other for a man who doesn't even care about any of them…. Shange concludes the poem with the two women comforting each other…. The strongest love between them is their love for each other…. Shange celebrates the bond of sisterhood between women as a more reliable source of support than romantic fantasies about men.
In the next series of poems, "no more love poems" …, which form the reflective introspective center of the choreopoem, Shange explores the experience of nothingness created by women's dependence on men. In what to me is the most profound poem in for colored girls, the lady in orange (originally played by Shange) sings a "requium for myself / cuz i / / have died in a real way."… The death she suffered was caused by self-denial and self-deception…. In these lines Shange expresses an understanding of why women take abuse from men without complaining: it is just too painful to admit that men have the upper hand in many relationships and that they abuse the women who love them. The young Black girl who knows that she will suffer on account of her race often tries to deny that she will also suffer on account of her sex. However, to begin to admit the depth of her pain and experience of nothingness is the beginning of the road to self-acceptance for every woman. (pp. 110-11)
In the final poem of "no more love poems," the poet confesses her inability to make her experience congruent with her philosophy. Indeed the disparity between her vision and her reality begins to drive her mad: "i've lost it / / touch with reality" …, she confesses. She ponders again the alternatives and admits she does not have the answer…. Though she has not found a solution, she has achieved clarity about the problem and confidence in her own values and worth. She will not be likely again to deny her pain or to take abuse in relationships. She may not be able to find a man to love her, but she can at least refuse to be a victim, and this is an important step. The other women join her in her refusal to take abuse, asserting that their love is too "delicate," "beautiful," "sanctified," "magic," "saturday nite," "complicated," and "music" to have thrown back in their faces. Their joint affirmation has more power than an individual assertion because in celebrating their sisterhood with each other, each woman hears her value affirmed by the others.
Their resolution not to take abuse is put into practice in the next poem, the story of a woman who "made too much room" for a man and apparently considered herself worthless when he left her. The title line of the poem, "somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff" …, is a metaphor that works on several levels. On the literal level it may refer to a man who stole some of a woman's things and attempted to sell them for money. On a sexual level, "stuff" is a euphemism for a woman's sexuality and refers to the man's failure to appreciate her giving of her body. And on the psychological level, the line refers to a man taking advantage of a woman's vulnerability and need for love. More than a lament, this poem is a celebration of a woman's self-respect and resolve not to abase herself for a man. The poem's humor stems from the literal elaboration of the central metaphor…. The lady in green enjoys her metaphor so much that she even begins to imagine this man has taken all her unique individuality, including her gestures and the identifying marks on her body…. In creating a catalogue of her "stuff" she comes to value herself in all her particularity. Instead of being turned in on herself, her anger is directed at the man who didn't appreciate what she had to offer…. Though rightly angry at the man, her anger is not a plea for him to love her as she thinks she deserves to be loved. Rather it is the anger of a woman who is learning finally to nurture and value herself. "My stuff," she says, "is the anonymous ripped off treasure // of the year."… Her list of what she treasures in herself is healing because she affirms her whole self, not just the self that has been primped and pampered to meet male approval. Shange deliberately celebrates aspects of her self that flout cultural ideals of female attractiveness: her immodesty, when she gives her crotch sunlight; her flawed body, including "calloused feet" and a "leg wit the // flea bite"; her unfeminine personality expressed in "quik language" …; and her unfeminine female smells, when she "didnt get a chance to take a douche."… (pp. 112-14)
The lady in blue wonders what the lady will do if this man comes back saying he's sorry. This provokes the women to join together in creating a litany of excuses men give when they say they're sorry…. The lady in blue replies, "one thing i dont need // is any more apologies."… Instead of continuing to live out the forgiving female role, she expresses in yet another particular way the women's joint decision to take no more abuse.
At last able to affirm themselves as they are, colored, and sometimes sorry, open and in need of love, the women face a final challenge as the lady in red tells the story of Crystal and Beau Willie Brown. The story begins in the room of Beau Willie, a Vietnam veteran sent to "kill vietnamese children" …, who returned "crazy as hell" … and addicted to drugs. Not unaware of the oppressive forces that turned Beau Willie crazy, the lady in red focuses on his tragic interaction with Crystal …, who with their children takes the brunt of Beau Willie's rage. (pp. 114-15)
The lady in red breaks the silence with her cry, "i waz missin somethin."… Her cry reminds everyone of the loss of her children. The other women deepen her cry, adding, "somethin so important," "somethin promised."… The lady in blue finally names what is missing—"a layin on of hands," to which the other ladies respond, "strong," "cool," "movin," "makin me whole," "sense, "pure," "all the gods comin into me / layin me open to myself."… Their words describe the sensations felt in a laying on of hands, an ancient healing ritual that is often practiced in evangelical sects in poor white and poor Black communities. The ladies explain that a laying on of hands is not sex with a man, or a mother's comforting touch, but a touching in which powers larger than the self are channeled into the one being healed. The laying on of hands ritual affirms the self's position in a community and in the universe, and suggests to her that she is not alone, that other humans—in this case women—and the very powers of being support her life and health. The laying on of hands in a community of women celebrates the power of sisterhood and sharing as one of the keys to a woman's moving through the experience of nothingness.
In the last poem, the lady in red describes how a woman, possibly Crystal, moves through nothingness to new being. Having contemplated suicide, this woman "fell into a numbness" …, but a mystical experience in nature brought her back to life…. Like Shange felt after her experience with the rainbow, the lady in red could conclude, "we are the same as the sky. We are here, breathing, living creatures, and we have a right to everything."
The final words of the lady in red, which are picked up and sung gospel style by the other women, are an incredible affirmation of her own power of being: "i found god in myself // and i loved her / i loved her fiercely."… These words express the affirmation of self, of being woman, of being Black, which is at the heart of for colored girls…. These final lines express Shange's conviction that the Black woman's quest for being is grounded in the powers of being. Though she has moments of despair that make her consideration of suicide logical, the powers of being in nature and sisterhood aid the Black woman in moving through nothingness. More than just a statement of self-affirmation, this woman's finding God in herself is an acknowledgement of her self's grounding in larger powers. (pp. 115-17)
To say "i found god in myself // and i loved her / i loved her fiercely" is to say in the clearest possible terms that it is all right to be a woman, that the Black woman does not have to imitate whiteness or depend on men for her power of being. This affirmation is a clear vision of new being on the far side of nothingness. (p. 117)
Carol P. Christ, "'I Found God in Myself … & I Loved Her Fiercely': Ntozake Shange," in her Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest (copyright © 1980 by Carol P. Christ: reprinted by permission of Beacon Press), Beacon Press, 1980, pp. 97-118.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1390
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 least appropriate responses are those exemplified by reviewers who said that black men will find themselves portrayed in Colored Girls "as brutal con men and amorous double dealers", or that "The thematic emphasis is constantly directed at the stupid crudity and downright brutality of [black] men." Comments such as these are particularly misleading because they appear in reviews which contain generous praise for Colored Girls, thus suggesting that it is the condemnation of black men which gives the book its merit. Too, such comments have the effect of diminishing the work to nothing more than a diatribe against black men, when, quite the contrary, Shange demonstrates a compassionate vision of black men—compassionate because though the work is not without anger, it has a certain integrity which could not exist if the author lacked a perceptive understanding of the crisis between black men and women.
And there is definitely a crisis. Individually we have known this for some time, and lately black women as well as black men are showing growing concern about the steady deterioration of their relationships. Black literature, however, has lagged somewhat behind. The works which usually comprise Afro-American literature curricula and become part of general reading materials, for instance, show the position of the black man in America; but generally we see the black woman only peripherally as the protagonist's lover, wife, mother, or in some other supporting (or detracting) role. Certainly black women can identify with the predicament of black men. Black women can identify, for example, with the problems articulated in Ellison's Invisible Man because they share the same predicaments. But for black women the predicament of the black male protagonist is compounded by concerns which affect them on yet another level. This, then, is what makes Colored Girls an important work which ranks with Ellison's Invisible Man, Wright's Native Son, and the handful of other black classics—it is an artistically successful female perspective on a longstanding issue among black people. (p. 51)
[The poems "Latent Rapists" and "Abortion Cycle #1"], which seem to deal exclusively with women's issues, are of political significance to black men. It is difficult to politicize rape among black women, for instance, because the feminist approach began with a strongly anti-male sentiment, whereas the black community is highly male-identified. Furthermore, blacks have their own historical perspective on rape—the thousands of black men who were lynched for "rape" of white women. The history of these persecutions, however, does not remove the black woman's need for a political consciousness about rape, such as the traditionally feminist one Shange articulates. By the same token, Shange has sensitively portrayed the trauma of abortion, a trauma which, to some extent, probably exists in every case, no matter how strongly a woman might advocate the right to choose abortion. Still, the black movement's rhetoric linking birth control to genocide cannot be lightly dismissed. These considerations ought to make clear the delicate balance between blackness and womanhood which Shange manages to strike in Colored Girls. Maintaining this balance is no easy task, and the black woman writer of some political consciousness is under tremendous pressure not to sacrifice issues of blackness to those of womanhood and vice versa.
As suggested, however, the primary focus of Colored Girls is on the quality of relationships between black women and their men….
[An overt despair] is evident in "A Nite with Beau Willie Brown."…
Shange's compassion for black men surfaces most noticably in this poem and … her characterization of Beau Willie recognizes some of the external factors which influence relationships between black men and women. (p. 52)
This poem is purely political, although it has been misunderstood by critics. Here, we are again talking about a question of perspective, specifically an artist's perspective which can transform a passing incident into a poem of far-reaching and chilling significance…. [It] becomes apparent that Shange's anger is in response to the circumstances and impulses—whatever they are—which result in men brutalizing women. Consequently, while our sympathies might at first be entirely with Crystal, we ultimately come to understand that her pain is also Beau's and vice versa.
Finally, the significance of Beau Willie's and Crystal's children must not be overlooked. Their names—Naomi Kenya and Kwame Beau Willie—are important, for both contain elements of the African and the Western, the miscegenation which resulted in the Afro-American. Further, the girl and boy can be seen as nascent black womanhood and manhood. Literally and metaphorically, then, in dropping the children, Beau Willie is not only committing murder and—since they are his offspring—suicide; but he is also killing the hope of black manhood and womanhood. (pp. 52-3)
"No More Love Poems" is actually love poetry of the most explicit and poignant kind. Each poem exposes the persona so completely that one understands that she is basically defenseless and vulnerable as far as love is concerned. More important, in being so open, each woman takes an awesome risk: If her lover has a misguided notion of manhood, his response to her admissions may be terribly painful for her because he will not be able to drop the poses his self-image requires and allow himself to be equally open and vulnerable with her. The pathos of this group of poems is probably most evident in "No More Love Poems #2" Here the lady in purple, who, piteously, used to "linger in non-english speakin arms so there waz no possibility of understandin" … represents the epitome of the loveless love affair. Her inability to understand anything said by the person of the "non-english speakin arms" is symbolic of woman's attempts to understand man. He does not speak her language—which is to say that he is unable to express the kinds of feelings that she is capable of putting into words. At the same time, he lacks the ability to understand her and so she can never hope to make clear to him the things that are important to her. (p. 53)
Black men and women have not communicated successfully. It might even be said that they have tried everything imaginable to avoid articulating their needs—extended families, promiscuity, no-strings-attached fatherhood, getting/staying high together, even the Black Power Movement in which black people were all sisters and brothers, which meant that everyone naturally had everyone else's welfare at heart and so there was no need to explain anything….
Shange has given us an exquisite and very personal view of the politics of black womanhood and black male-female relationships. Too few black writers are doing that—perhaps because the truth is really as painful as that depicted in Colored Girls, and in telling it one opens oneself to charges of dividing the race and exposing blacks to ridicule by reinforcing stereotypes. That allegation has been levied against Colored Girls, which is unfortunate because the only thing of which Ntozake Shange is guilty is a sincere, eloquent rendering of what she has come to understand about black love relationships. Critics cannot afford to insist that black writers forgo expressing such visions simply because they are painful, embarrassing, or potentially divisive. If that is true, maybe it is because blacks have been so preoccupied with political and economic survival that they no longer know, if they ever did, how to confront their own responsibility for what happens between black men and women; in that case, blacks really do have a great need for Colored Girls and similar works. (p. 54)
Sandra Hollin Flowers, "'Colored Girls': Textbook for the Eighties" (© Indiana State University 1981; reprinted with the permission of the author and Indiana State University), in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 15, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 51-4.