Ntozake Shange, Feminist Playwright and Poet
By Skyler Gomez | On July 27, 2019 | Updated August 24, 2022 | Comments (0)
Ntozake Shange, born Paulette Linda Williams (October 18, 1948 – October 27, 2018), was an African American playwright, poet, and feminist. As a Black feminist, her work often shed light on issues relating to Black power, race, and gender.
Among her many powerful works, she’s best known for the Obie Award-winning play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Photo at right, AP. 1976.
Born in Trenton, New Jersey, she was the oldest of four children in an upper-middle-class family. Her father, Paul T. Williams, was an Air Force surgeon, and her mother, Eloise Williams, was a psychiatric social worker and an educator.
By the age of eight, her family left Trenton and moved to St. Louis, Missouri. In 1956, it was a racially segregated city that would later become one of the major influences in her work.
A Love for Poetry
Due to the Brown v. Board of Education court decision, the young Paulette Williams attended a white school where she was regularly exposed to racial attacks in exchange for a “quality” education. Though life at school was challenging, her family pushed her to find her artistic outlet, as they all had a strong interest in the arts.
The Williams family had many admirable guests visit their home, including Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, and W.E.B Du Bois. Ultimately, Paulette decided that she loved poetry.
While still living in Trenton, she would attend poetry readings with her younger sister, Wanda, who is currently known as the playwright Ifa Bayeza. These poetry readings allowed the sisters to develop an interest in the South and the loss it represented for the Black youth who were forced to migrate to the North with their parents.
She returned to Lawrence Township, Mercer County, New Jersey when she was thirteen and graduated from Lawrence High School. After graduating high school, she enrolled at Barnard College in 1966 where she met Thulani Davis, a fellow Barnard student, and would-be poet. The two would then go on to collaborate on numerous works soon after.
In 1970, she graduated cum laude with a degree in American Studies. She continued her education and went on to earn her master’s degree in the same field from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Although she was very successful in her studies, she struggled emotionally in her personal life.
Ntozake Shange comes into being
She married during her first year of college but the marriage did not last long. She was depressed over her divorce and developed feelings of bitterness and even alienated herself from others. At one point, things got so bad that she even tried to attempt suicide.
She started coming to terms with her feelings of alienation and depression in 1971, pushing her to change her name to Ntozake Shange. In Zulu, a Bantu language of the Zulus from South Africa, Ntozake means “she who comes with her things” and Shange means “who walks like a lion.”
She told Allan Wallach in Newsday that the reason for her name change was due to her belief that she was “living a lie,” saying, “[I was] living in a world that defied reality as most black people, or most white people, understood it–in other words, feeling that there was something that I could do, and then realizing that nobody was expecting me to do anything because I was colored and I was also a female, which was not very easy to deal with.”
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Photo by Sylvia Plachy, 1976
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The start of a brilliant career
After earning her master’s degree, Shange moved back to New York City in 1975 and was acknowledged for being a founding poet of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. That year, she also produced what would remain her best-known play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf.
The play was first produced Off-Broadway and eventually moved to the Booth Theater on Broadway where it won multiple awards, including the AUDELCO Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, and the Obie Award.
For Colored Girls ... is a twenty-part choreopoem — a term that Shange coined to describe the groundbreaking and drama-filled play that combined multiple art forms, including poetry, dance, music, and song. The choreopoem was used to portray the harsh reality of the lives of women of color in America.
For Colored Girls ... was published in book form in 1977. That same year, she married musician David Murray, with whom she had a daughter, Savannah Thulani Eloisa, in 1981. The play later went on to be adapted into a film by Tyler Perry in 2010 called For Colored Girls, though it’s quite different than the staged version.
Shange wrote other successful plays, such as Spell No. 7 (1979), another choreopoem that delves into the Black experience, and an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. This work earned her another Obie Award.
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In addition to creating numerous successful choreopoems, Shange became an associate of the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press (WIFP) in 1978, an American nonprofit publishing organization that works to increase the communication between women and the public with women-based media.
She taught at the University of Houston in the Creative Writing Program from 1984 to 1986. While there, she wrote the ekphrastic poetry collection called Ridin’ the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings, and was the thesis advisor for poet and playwright Annie Finch.
In 2003 she wrote and oversaw the production of Lavender Lizards and Lilac Landmines: Layla’s Dream while also serving as a visiting artist at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
Shange also wrote many individual poems, essays, and short stories that were published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Black Scholar, Ms. Essence Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, VIBE, Yardbird, and others.
The Black Arts Movement
The Black Arts Movement, known as BAM, is a subset of the Black Power Movement and has been described as the “radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic” by Larry Neal. BAM’s key concepts are a “separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology” along with the African American’s need for “self-determination and nationhood.”
Many actors, actresses, choreographers, musicians, novelists, artists, and other public figures took part in BAM. Some of the most notable women who participated included Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, and Sonia Sanchez.
Described as a “post-Black artist,” Shange’s work was seen as feminist. Concerning the idea that BAM’s art was a “radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic,” she described her work by saying “A play has a form that has to be finished. A performance piece has an organic form, but it can even flow. And there doesn’t have to be some ultimate climax in it. And there does not have to be a denouement.”
Shange set her writing apart from the usual writing style of the Black Arts Movement by creating a “special aesthetic” for black women “to an extent,” claiming that “the same rhetoric that is used to establish the Black Aesthetic, we must use to establish a women’s aesthetic.”
She also went on to say that “the cycles of our lives that have been ignored for centuries in all castes and classes of our people, are to be dealt with now.”
Themes in Ntozake Shange’s work
Shange’s work incorporates a number of genres that address injustice, violence, and oppression. She used African American dialect and has been both criticized and admired for her unique writing style. She has also been applauded for her religious feminism and her stand on race and gender issues.
Her choreopoems, consisting of poetry, drama, and autobiography, have at times been criticized as one-sided attacks on black men. Though her work has received some backlash, it is also valued for its flair and lyricism.
In Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest (1980), Carol P. Christ observed:
“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 experiences of being Black and a woman to life.
Those who hear or read her choreopoem for colored girls … may feel overwhelmed by so much reality, so much pain, so much resiliency, so much life force … 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.
… Shange’s poems also reflect the double strength Black women have had to muster to survive in a world where neither being Black nor being a woman is valued.”
Awards and Honors; the legacy of Ntozake Shange
In 1977, Shange was awarded the Off-Broadway Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Audience Development Committee Award, Village Voice, Mademoiselle Award, and Antoinette Perry, Grammy, and Academy award nominations all for For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf.
In 1978, Shange was awarded the Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop Award. In 1981, The Los Angeles Times Book Prize was awarded to Shange for her Three Pieces. This year, she also won an Off-Broadway Award for Mother Courage and Her Children.
In 1992, Shange was awarded the Paul Robeson Achievement Award, the Arts and Cultural Achievement Award, and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Inc., Pennsylvania chapter.
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The Death of a Legend
On the night of October 27, 2018, Shange died in her sleep at the age of seventy in an assisted living facility in Bowie, Maryland. Though she was ill and and had suffered strokes in 2004, she was still creating new work and giving readings.
Her sister, Ifa Bayeza, was quoted saying: “It’s a huge loss for the world. I don’t think there’s a day on the planet when there’s not a young woman who discovers herself through the words of my sister.”
More About Ntozake Shange
On this site
- The Enduring Power of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide /
When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange
- For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf (1975)
- A Photograph: Lovers-in-Motion (1977)
- Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon (1977)
- A Photograph: A Study of Cruelty (1977)
- Boogie Woogie Landscapes (1979)
- Spell #7 (1979)
- Mother Courage and Her Children (1980)
- Sassafras, Cypress, & Indigo (1982)
- Three for a Full Moon (1982)
- Bocas (1982)
- From Okra to Greens/A Different Kinda Love Story (1983)
- Betsey Brown (1985)
- Three views of Mt. Fuji (1987)
- Daddy Says (1989)
- Liliane (1994)
- Whitewash (1994)
- Some Sing, Some Cry (2010; with Ifa Bayeza)
- Wild Beauty: New and Selected Poems
- If I Can Cook / You Know God Can (2019; posthumous)
More Information and sources
- The Poetry Foundation
- Official Ntozake Shange site
- Browse Biography
- Obituary in The New York Times
Contributed by Skyler Isabella Gomez, a 2019 SUNY New Paltz graduate with a degree in Public Relations and a minor in Black Studies. Her passions include connecting more with her Latin roots by researching and writing about legendary Latina authors.