It has been awhile since Ntozake Shange’s paradigm-shifting “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” exploded onto the theatrical scene in 1973, introducing a provocative new voice and unique genre—the choreopoem.
“For Colored Girls…” first caught everyone’s attention when it was produced for five weeks by Woodie King at the New Federal Theatre. Then word-of-mouth and lines-around-the-block led to Joe Papp’s Public Theater, where packed houses and an off-Broadway Obie Award catapulted it to a stunningly successful run co-produced by King and Papp on Broadway. With that, Shange became the first Black woman to make such a journey since 1959 and Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking “A Raisin in the Sun.” Critics showered “For Colored Girls…” with praise, calling it “powerful theater” and its blend of poetry, dance and music “unapologetically original.” The play has remained in production both in the U.S. and abroad, and in print since its 1974 publication. In 2010, Tyler Perry made it into a movie. But least we forget, while “For Colored Girls” is Shange’s best known work, she has written 15 plays, 19 poetry collections, 6 novels, 5 children’s books, 3 collections of essays and a memoir called “Lost in Language & Sound.” Shange is also a noted theater director.
I first interviewed Shange for a Village newspaper when “For Colored Girls” opened at the Public. Back then, America was a cultural and political powder keg with multiple fuses—Black Power, the Black Arts Movement, the Puerto Rican Liberation Movement, the LGBT Movement, anti-Vietnam War protests, feminism and more. “For Colored Girls” added to the combustible mix. And, when Michele Wallace’s Black feminist manifesto, “Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman,” joined the fray, things really got heated. In a Village Voice article about Shange back then, Wallace wrote, “The subject is ‘colored girls’—their growing up, their coming of age, their initiation into the horrors of dreams trampled underfoot … Men come up only as they are relevant to the Black woman’s discovery of her own life.” Wallace, like many, was struck by “the explosion of details considered irrelevant to the main action in Black plays from “The Dutchman” to “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death.” Shange filled a void, but while some praised her, others pounced.
Shange says that in some ways, “For Colored Girls” was not easy to live with. “It was very hurtful because the fury with which I was attacked and criticized was totally new to me,” she said. “I wasn’t accustomed to it, so to come here and have men not understand what it was about was an absolute surprise. It threw me for a loop. Michelle and I talked about that and our feelings about being shunned like that. It made me retreat from the world and seek out safe places.” She describes writing in a curtained booth at a restaurant near the Public Theater, where she could “just be invisible.” For a time, she’d even wear big hats and dark glasses so folks wouldn’t recognize her.
Over the years there has been a sea change in those types of reactions. Gone are the occasional angry visceral attacks. “Young men are much more open to it,” Shange said, “They come to me and tell me how much they enjoyed it.”
Now, the writer, who was born Paulette Williams Oct. 18, 1948, into the upper middle-class New Jersey family of Air Force surgeon Paul T. Williams and his wife, Eloise, an educator and psychiatric social worker, is being lionized. Fittingly, the name she took in her youth, Shange, means “he/she who walks with lions or in Zulu, the lion’s pride,” and Ntozake, means “she who has her own things” in Xhosa.
Her alma mater, Barnard College, jumped at the opportunity to acquire her archives and launched the Digital Shange Project. City University of New York recently hosted the Langston Hughes Festival, with a symposium on her work, a movie screening of the original production of “For Colored Girls…” and a ceremony presenting Shange with the Langston Hughes Medal, an award previously bestowed on such greats as Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Octavia Butler and Edwidge Danticat.