Ntozake Shange was an American playwright and poet best known for the Obie Award-winning play for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. She was a self-proclaimed black feminist, and her work frequently addressed race and feminism.
Shange was born Paulette L. Williams in 1948 in Trenton, New Jersey, where as a child she attended poetry readings with her sister. These readings inspired in her an interest in the South, particularly the loss it represented to young Black children who migrated to the North with their parents. At the age of 8, her family moved to the racially segregated city of St. Louis. Shange was bussed to a white school as a result of the Brown v. Board of Education court decision. She endured racial discrimination and attacks while at school, and drew on these experiences in her poetry. Shange’s family were supportive of the arts, and frequently hosted cultural icons like Dizzie Gillepsie, Miles Davis and W.E.B. DuBois were regular guests at their family home. At the age of 13, Shange returned to New Jersey, and graduated from Lawrence High School before continuing her education at Barnard College in New York City.
Shange had a difficult time at Barnard, while in her first year, Shange married but it did not last long. Her frustration and hurt following the separation culminated in several suicide attempts. She graduated cum laude in American Studies before undertaking a masters at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. During her masters, and after overcoming her depression and sense of alienation, she changed her name to Ntozake Shange. In Xhosa, Ntozake means “she who has her own things” (literally “things that belong to her”) and Shange means “he/she who walks/lives with lions” (meaning “the lion’s pride” in Zulu). She began to focus her rage against the limitations society imposes on black women, and became involved in a Third World Women’s Cooperative which was “supportive and instrumental” in her development.
After graduating in 1973, Shange taught humanities and women’s studies courses at Mills College in Oakland, the University of California Extension, and Sonoma State College. She built up a social circle of poets, teachers, performers and feminist writers who encouraged her talents and began to explore other female poets who were “implications of liberation movements as they affected the lives of women of color” and “rejecting the claims of patriarchy.” Shange and her friends began performing their poetry in bars and coffeehouses in San Franciso while feminist presses including Shameless Hussy and the Oakland Women’s Press Collective published women’s writings.
In 1973, Shange performed as a priestess in choreographer Halifu Osumare’s The Evolution of Black Dance in public schools in Oakland and Berkley. The experience inspired Shange, and she began to collaborate on poems, dance and music that would later become a play. In 1975, Shange moved back to New York City and that year her first, and most well-known play ‘for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf’ was produced. It began Off-broadway, before moving on to Broadway the Booth Theatre. It was hugely successful, and won several awards, including the Obie Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, and the AUDELCO Award. It also received Tony, Grammy and Emmy Award nominations. The play is a unique blend of poetry, music, dance and drama called a “choreopoem.” It chronicled the lives of women of colour in the United States and described pain and struggle women face because of racism and sexism. It was later made into a stage plan, then published in book form in 1977. She followed this with A Photograph: A Study of Cruelty (1977), Boogie Woogie Landscapes (1977), Spell No. 7 (1979), Black and White Two Dimensional Planes (1979) and an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children (1980), which won an Obie Award.
In 1978, Shange published her first collection of poetry Nappy Edges and in 1982, her first full-length novel, entitled Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo, detailing the diverging lives of three sisters and their mother was published. The book is an admixture of narrative, recipes, letters, poetry and magic spells. Three years later, she published the semi-autobiographical Betsey Brown and in 1994, her third novel Liliane: The Resurrection of the Daughter, was published. Her individual poems, essays and short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including The Black Scholar, Yardbird, Ms., Essence Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, VIBE, and Third-World Women.
In 2003, Shange served as a visiting artist at the University of Florida, Gainesville. During her time there, she wrote and oversaw the production of Lavender Lizards and Lilac Landmines: Layla’s Dream. A year later, she continued to cultivate her multi-media approach to poetry with The Sweet Breath of Life: A Poetic Narrative of the African-American Family (2004). In addition to her collections of poetry, novels and plays, Shange has published essay collections including See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays, and Accounts 1976-1983 (1984) and If I Can Cook You Know God Can (1999). She has also written children’s books. In 2010, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf was adapted into a film renamed For Colored Girls.
Shange was a self-identified black feminist, and taught women’s studies at a number of educational institutions as well as being an associate professor of drama at the University of Houston, Texas. She also worked as a professor at the University of Florida teaching as part of the African American Studies Program and the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research. She has been the recipient of many awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund, and a Pushcart Prize.