Ntozake Shange’s (October 18, 1948 – October 27, 2018) work embodies a rich confusion of genres and all the contradictions inherent in a world in which violence and oppression polarize life and art. These polarizations in Shange’s work both contribute to her artistry and complicate it. She has been criticized and praised for her unconventional language and structure, for her almost religious feminism, and for her stand on black/white and male/female issues.
In Ntozake Shange’s introduction to the volume Three Pieces, she makes this statement about drama:
as a poet in american theater/ i find most activity that takes place on our stages overwhelmingly shallow/ stilted&imitative. that is probably one of the reasons i insist on calling myself a poet or writer/ rather than a playwright/ i am interested solely in the poetry of a moment/ the emotional & aesthetic impact of a character or a line.
Her plays have evoked a range of critical responses commensurate with their unconventional nature. Should her work be characterized as poetry or drama, prose or poetry, essay or autobiography? Her choreopoems, made up of poetry, drama, prose, and autobiography, are unified by a militant feminism in which some critics have seen a one-sided attack on black men. Others, however, point out the youthful spirit, flair with language, and lyricism that carry her plays to startling and radical conclusions. Her style and its seeming contradictions, such as the use of both black English and the erudite vocabulary of the educated, are at the heart of her drama. Influenced by their method of development—public poetry reading in bars, cafés, schools, Off-Off-Broadway theaters—the plays are generally somewhere between a poetry reading and a staged play.
First among the contradictions or contrasts is her blending of genres: Her poems shade into drama, her dramas are essentially verse monologues, and her novels incorporate poetic passages. Second, her language varies radically—on a single page and even in a single phrase—from black dialect (“cuz,” “wanna,” “awready,” “chirren”) to the language of her middle-class upbringing and education (“i cant count the number of times i have viscerally wanted to attack deform n maim the language that i waz taught to hate myself in/”). In the published texts of her poetry, plays, and essays, in addition to simplified phonetic spellings, she employs the slash instead of the period and omits capitalization. Many recordings of her work are available, and these provide the listener with a much fuller sense of the dynamic quality of her language in performance.
Shange’s bold and daring use of language, her respect for people formerly given little value, and her exploration of the roles of black men and women have opened a new dimension in theater. Her blendings of poetry, music, and dance bring theater back to its origins and simultaneously blaze a trail toward the drama of the future.
for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf
Shange’s first dramatic success, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, is the recital, individually and in chorus, of the lives and growth of seven different black women, named according to their dress colors: “lady in red,” “lady in blue,” “lady in orange,” “lady in brown,” “lady in yellow,” “lady in purple,” and “lady in green.” The term “colored girls” in the title evokes a stereotype of black women yet also contains a germ of hope for the future (the “rainbow,” both of color and of eventual salvation).
These seven stylized figures are representative voices of black women, and they express their fury at their oppression both as women and as blacks. The first segment shows high school graduation and the social and sexual rite of passage for “colored girls” in the working-class suburbs. Some of the women who have been cruelly disappointed in relationships with men discuss their spiritual quests. A black woman pretends to be Puerto Rican so that she can dance the merengue in Spanish Harlem. A woman breaks up with her lover by returning to him his plant to water. The scenes become more somber, portraying rape, abuse, city dangers, and abortion. Ties with a more heroic black past appear in “Toussaint,” while the glamorized prostitute evicts her lover from her bed. The women begin to analyze their predicaments and to assert their independence in segments entitled “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff” and “pyramid,” in which three women console one another for the actions of the faithless lover whom they share. In the brutal culminating scene, a crazed Vietnam veteran, Beau Willie Brown, abuses his woman Crystal and kills their infant children, dropping them from a window.
The recurrent motif of the recitation is the thwarting of dreams and aspirations for a decent life by forces beyond one’s control: war, poverty, and ignorance. There is, however, a saving grace. Toward the end of the play, the seven women fall into a tighter circle of mutual support, much like a religious “laying on of hands” ceremony, in which they say, “i found god in myself/ & i loved her/ i loved her fiercely.” Their bitter pain, shown throughout the dramatic episodes, turns into a possibility of regeneration. Thus, the play is a drama of salvation for women who do not receive their full value in society.
Though it was a landmark in the emergence of new black women playwrights, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf has been criticized for its lack of discussion of black traditions in religion, family, and ordinary work, and for its omissions of both black literary and political history and the influence of whites. Its style, considered as an attack on language, part of blacks’ “enslavement,” has also been criticized. Later plays, however, include these elements in a constantly enriching network of allusions.
In A Photograph, a set of meditations and sketches involving an ideal black woman named Michael and her lover Sean, a failed photographer, Shange explores her idea of art—“the poetry of a moment”—as well as representative stages of the African American experience. Photography, dance, and drama are shown to be art forms that capture meaningful moments and present them to viewers and readers so that they might behold and understand the essence and the value of art and life. The young professionals that reside in or pass through Sean’s San Francisco apartmentstudio are shown to examine the psychological factors that impede and that motivate them and other African Americans.
The five figures of this piece are representative of other aspects of black life than those put forward in her first play. Nevada, a lawyer and lover-supporter of Sean, the struggling artist, sets herself above other “common” African Americans: Her family, she boasts, “was manumitted in 1843/ [when] yall were still slaves/ carrying things for white folks . . . /” The upwardly mobile Earl, also a lawyer, former lover of Claire and long-time friend of Sean, pleads Nevada’s case to Sean when the latter rejects her. Claire is a dancer who dances seductively for Sean as he photographs and then ravishes her. Michael is a dancer and the woman Sean comes truly to love as she shares herself and her ideas of art and of the African experience with him.
Early in the drama Sean tells Michael, “i’m a genius for unravelling the mysteries of the darker races/. . . i know who we are.” After he rejects Nevada and is rejected by her, Sean reveals his insecurities as a son, a man, an African American, and an artist. The self- and race-assured artist Michael challenges her temporarily broken lover. Sean soon responds to this and to a poetic story danced and told by Michael with his own story and assurances.
yes. that’s right. me. i’ma be it. the photographer of all time. look out ansel/ . . . i can bring you the world shining grainy focused or shaking/ a godlike phenomenon/ sean david . . . i realize you’re not accustomed to the visions of a man of color who has a gift/ but fear not/ I’ll give it to ya a lil at a time. i am only beginning to startle/ to mesmerize and reverse the reality of all who can see. I gotta thing bout niggahs/ my folks/ that just wont stop/ & we are so correct for the photograph/ we profile all the time/ styling/ giving angle & pattern/ shadows & still life. if somebody sides me cd see the line in niggahs/ the texture of our lives/ they wda done it/ but since nobody has stepped forward/ here I am . . .
Sean seems obviously representative of Shange the artist in his coming-into-his-own response to Michael, who is yet another representative of Shange the artist. This choreopoem seems a particularly significant statement made by Shange, poet and writer: She, like Sean, presents “the contours of life unnoticed” and she, like Michael, speaks “for everybody burdened.”
Boogie Woogie Landscapes
After examining the identity of isolated young black women in for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf and of couples in A Photograph, Shange concentrates on one woman’s visions, dreams, and memories in Boogie Woogie Landscapes, which was first produced as a one-woman poetry piece in 1978 and then cast as a play in 1979, with music and dance. Layla, a young black woman, entertains in her dreams a series of nightlife companions who exemplify her perceptions of herself and her memories. “Layla” in Arabic means “born at night,”and the entire drama exists in Layla’s nighttime subconscious. Layla’s dreams of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, of primitive cruelties to African women, and of rock and roll and blues interweave with her feelings about growing up, family, brothers and sisters, parents, maids (some of which appear later in Shange’s semiautobiographical novel Betsey Brown).
Shange’s 1979 play Spell #7, like her first play, is structured like a highly electric poetry reading, but this time the cast is mixed male and female. A huge blackface mask forms the backdrop for actors and actresses of an imitation old-time minstrel show, where actors did skits, recited, and joked, all under the direction of a Mr. Interlocutor. The actors come offstage, relax at an actors’ bar, and gradually remove their masks, revealing their true selves. Lou, the “practicing magician,” reveals that his father gave up his role as magician when a colored child asked for a spell to make her white. The actors tell each other and the audience tall stories. One of these involves a child who thought blacks were immune to dread diseases and disease-ridden passions such as polio and pedophilia. She is disillusioned when, as an adult, she finds that blacks not only can but also do hurt one another, so she buys South African gold
to remind the black people that it cost a lot for us to be here
our value/ can be known instinctively
but since so many black people are having a hard time not being like white folks
i wear these gold pieces to protest
their ignorance their disconnect from history.
Another woman loves her baby, which she names “myself,” while it is in the womb but kills it after it is born. Still another girl vows to brush her “nappy” hair constantly so that she can toss it like white girls. By these contrasts and by wry lists and surprising parallels, Shange shows the pain and difficulty, as well as the hopefulness, of being black. Lou refers to the spell that caused his father to give up magic as he (Lou) casts the final spell of Spell #7:
aint no colored magician in his right mind
gonna make you white
cuz this is blk magic you lookin at
& i’m fixin you up good/ fixin you up good
& colored & you gonna be colored all yr life
& you gonna love it/ bein colored
The others join him in celebration of “bein colored”; but the minstrel mask drops down and Lou’s final words contain anger as well as celebration:
crackers are born with the right to be
alive/ i’m making ours up right here
in yr face/ & we gonna be
colored & love it
From Okra to Greens
Shange’s From Okra to Greens draws together and expands on the themes of her earlier theater pieces. The discovery by the lovers Okra and Greens of the beauty and strength—the god—within the individual is like that of the women who populate for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. Similarly, the lovers’ discovery of what is sacred—of the fullness and color of life versus the “skinny life” of black and white—is the goal of Layla in Boogie Woogie Landscapes, of the actors in Spell #7, and of the artists of A Photograph. The love between two fully realized human beings, like that experienced by Sean and Michael in A Photograph, is fully expanded on in this two-character drama of Okra and Greens. The theme of the responsibility of the artist touched on by Sean and by Michael is also fully developed by the poets Okra and Greens.
In the opening scenes of From Okra to Greens, Greens speaks of Okra’s plight as single black woman as Okra acts/dances the role. This scene is reminiscent of Sean and Michael speaking in unison about Sean’s and then Michael’s art in the final scene of A Photograph and Ross’s talking while Maxine acts out the role that the two are creating together, on the spot, in Spell #7. In From Okra to Greens, as in her other choreopoems, Shange turns her dramatic poetry into staged drama. She presents verbatim much of the poetry of her collection A Daughter’s Geography. Although her feminist protests are dramatized in this play as in for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf and in Boogie Woogie Landscapes, here her feminist protest is given voice by the male character Greens. That both Okra and Greens are poets allows them to have an understanding of one another and of the roles forced on too many African American women and men as well as an understanding of the role that human beings should play in the world.
Okra first dances as “the crooked woman” as Greens speaks, showing his and society’s distorted view of black women. Okra’s dance reflects both her pain and her potential strength and beauty. As the two come together, Greens admits his own crookedness in telling Okra that before their encounter he had not known “what a stood/up straight man felt like.” Together the two characters create and present portraits of “some men” who degrade women (as they are encouraged to do by the patriarchy). Once married, the two continue their dialogue, which includes their consideration of one another and of the sociopolitical climate in which they and, later, their daughter, must reside.
Shange’s Okra and Greens celebrates, as do Sean and Michael in A Photograph, the richness of African American life. Her love story extends to the poor of not only her own country but also the world. Okra pleads for the return of Haitian liberators Dessalines, Petion, and L’Ouverture with their visions of “la liberte, l’egalite, la fraternite.” As in her other theater pieces, Shange calls here, too, for the return of American visionaries, among them W. E. B. Du Bois.
As the hope of the world’s visionaries is shown to have dimmed, so the relationship between the lovers Okra and Greens dims momentarily. Abandoned by Greens, Okra says that “the moon cracked in a ugly rupture.” Joined once more, the two encourage each other and others to “rise up” and to “dance with the universe.” This story of the love between two poets is a love song to a universe in sad need of hope.
The refrain of Boogie Woogie Landscapes, that “we dont recognize what’s sacred anymore,” is revealed in From Okra to Greens in the portrait of the “pretty man” whose pretty floors are covered with the kind of rug that “little girls spend whole/ lives tying.” Lack of recognition of the sacred is a theme repeated throughout the work. However, the love between Okra and Greens and their hope for their daughter and for the oppressed peoples of the world shows recognition of the sacred is possible for aware, thinking, and caring individuals. The memory of other visionaries also shows the poets’ and others’ recognition of the sacred. It is clear here and throughout her writing that Shange would have her audience recognize the sacred in themselves and in others and do their part in telling the story—in spreading the word—and in fighting for liberty, equality, and fraternity for all.
Betsey Brown and The Love Space Demands
In 1991, Shange adapted her novel Betsey Brown into a play. The semiautobiographical work tells the story of a thirteenyear- old African American girl growing up in a middle-class household in 1950’s St. Louis. The Love Space Demands, a loosely connected series of poems and monologues Shange herself performs with musical accompaniment, revolves around sexual relations in the age of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).
for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, pr., pb. 1975; A Photograph: Still Life with Shadows; A Photograph: A Study in Cruelty, pr. 1977 (revised as A Photograph: Lovers in Motion, pr. 1979, pb. 1981); Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon, pr. 1977 (with Thulani Nkabinde and Jessica Hagedorn); From Okra to Greens: A Different Kinda Love Story, pr. 1978, pb. 1985; Black and White Two Dimensional Planes, pr., 1979; Spell #7: Geechee Jibara Quik Magic Trance Manual for Technologically Stressed Third World People, pr. 1979, pb. 1981; Boogie Woogie Landscapes, pr. 1979, pb. 1981; Mother Courage and Her Children, pr. 1980 (adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play); Three Pieces, pb. 1981; Betsey Brown, pr. 1991 (based on her novel); The Love Space Demands: A Continuing Saga, pb. 1991, pr. 1992; Plays: One, pb. 1992; Three Pieces, pb. 1992.
Other major works
Long fiction: Sassafras: A Novella, 1976; Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo, 1982; Betsey Brown, 1985; Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter, 1994.
Poetry: Nappy Edges, 1978; Natural Disasters and Other Festive Occasions, 1979; A Daughter’s Geography, 1983, 1991; From Okra to Greens: Poems, 1984; Ridin’ the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings, 1987; I Live in Music, 1994.
Nonfiction: See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays, and Accounts, 1976-1983, 1984; If I Can Cook, You Know God Can, 1998.
Edited text: The Beacon Best of 1999: Creative Writing by Women and Men of All Colors, 2000.
Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.
Effiong, Philip Uko. In Search of a Model for African American Drama: A Study of Selected Plays by Lorraine Hansberry, Amiri Baraka, and Ntozake Shange. New York: University Press of America, 2000.
Lester, Neal A. Ntozake Shange: A Critical Study of the Plays. New York: Garland, 1995.
Russell, Sandi. Render Me My Song: African American Women Writers from Slavery to the Present. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.
Shange, Ntozake, and Emily Mann. “The Birth of an R&B Musical.” Interview by Douglas J. Keating. Inquirer (Philadelphia), March 26, 1989.
Sommers, Michael. “Rays of Hope in a Sky of Blues.” Review of The Love Space Demands by Ntozake Shange. Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.), March 12, 1992.
“Spell #7 Takes Us on Magical Trip.” Review of Spell #7 by Ntozake Shange. Times (Washington, D.C.), May 9, 1991.