Ntozake Shange (phonetically n-to-zaki shan-gay; born October 18, 1948) is an American playwright, and poet. As a self-proclaimed black feminist, she addresses issues relating to race and feminism in much of her work.
Shange is best known for the Obie Award-winning play for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.
She has also written several novels including Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Liliane, and Betsey Brown, a novel about an African-American girl who runs away from home. Among her honors and awards are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Fund, and a Pushcart Prize. Shange lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Shange was born Paulette L. Williams in Trenton, New Jersey to an upper-middle-class family. Her father, Paul T. Williams, was an Air Force surgeon, and her mother, Eloise Williams, was an educator and a psychiatric social worker. When she was aged 8, Shange's family moved to the racially segregated city of St. Louis. As a result of the Brown v. Board of Education court decision, Shange was bused to a white school where she endured racism and racist attacks.
Shange's family had a strong interest in the arts and encouraged her artistic education. Among the guests at their home were Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, and W. E. B. Du Bois. From an early age, Shange took an interest in poetry. While growing up with her family in Trenton, Shange attended poetry readings with her sister. These poetry readings fostered an early interest for Shange in the South in particular, and the loss it represented to young Black children who migrated to the North with their parents. In 1956, Shange's family moved to St. Louis, Missouri where Shange was sent several miles away from home to a non-segregated school that allowed her to receive "gifted" education. While attending this non-segregated school, Shange faced overt racism and harassment. These experiences would later go on to heavily influence her work.
When Shange was 13, she returned to New Jersey, where she graduated from Trenton Central High School. In 1966 Shange enrolled at Barnard College in New York City. During her time at Barnard, Shange met fellow Barnard student and would be poet, Thulani Davis. The two poets would later go on to collaborate on various works. She graduated cum laude in American Studies, then earned a master's degree in the same field from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. However, Shange's college years were not all pleasant. She married during her first year in college, but the marriage did not last long. Depressed over her separation and with a strong sense of bitterness and alienation, she attempted suicide. In 1971, having come to terms with her depression and alienation, Shange changed her name. 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).
In 1975, Shange moved back to New York City, after earning her Masters in American Studies in 1973 from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California. In that year her first and most well-known play was produced -- for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. First produced Off-Broadway, the play soon moved on to Broadway at the Booth Theater and won several awards, including the Obie Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, and the AUDELCO Award. This play, her most famous work, was a 20-part choreopoem that chronicled the lives of women of color in the United States. The poem was eventually made into the stage play, was then published in book form in 1977. In 2010, the choreopoem was adapted into a film (For Colored Girls, directed by Tyler Perry). Since then, Shange has written other successful plays, including Spell No. 7, a 1979 choreopoem that explores the Black experience and an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children (1980), which won an Obie Award.
In 2003, Shange wrote and oversaw the production of Lavender Lizards and Lilac Landmines: Layla's Dream while serving as a visiting artist at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
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.
Relationship to the Black Arts Movement:
The Black Arts Movement also known as BAM is described as the "aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept." The Black Arts Movement is a subset of the Black Power Movement. Larry Neal described the Black Arts Movement as a "radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic." Key concepts of BAM were focused on a "separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology" as well as the African American's desire for "self-determination and nationhood." BAM consisted of actors, actresses, choreographers, musicians, novelists, poets, photographers and artists.
Though male artists such as Amiri Baraka heavily dominated the Black Arts Movement, some notable women writers of the movement were Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Rosa Guy, Lorraine Hansberry, Lucille Clifton, and Sonia Sanchez among others. Although Ntozake Shange is described as a "post-Black artist," her work was decidedly feminist whereas BAM has been criticized as misogynistic and "sexism had been widely and hotly debated within movement publications and organizations." Corresponding with the idea that art from BAM was a "radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic," Shange herself has described her atypical writing style. In regards to her plays, she states, "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."
Though Shange's work did have a "radical reordering of western cultural aesthetic" with its spelling, structure, and style, Amiri Baraka--one of the leading male figures of the movement denied her as a post-Black artist. In regards to Shange as a part of the black aesthetic and as a post-Black artist, Baraka claims, "that several women writers, among them Michelle Wallace and Ntozake Shange, like Reed, had their own "Hollywood" aesthetic, one of "capitulation" and "garbage." In regards to a black aesthetic, Shange has described different styles of writing for different parts of the country. Shange states, "There's not a California style, but there are certain feelings and a certain freeness that set those writers off from those in Chicago-St. Louis-Detroit tripod group...so that the chauvinism, that you might find that's exclusionary, in that triangle, you don't find too much in California." Shange sets her writing a part from the Black aesthetic of the Black arts movement by creating a "special aesthetic" for "black women "to an extent." She claims that, "the same rhetoric that is used to establish the Black Aesthetic, we must use to establish a women's aesthetic, which is to say that those parts of reality that are ours, those things about our bodies, 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."
NDEA fellow, 1974,
Outer Critics Circle Award,
Audience Development Committee (Audelco) Award,
Frank Silvera Writers' Workshop Award, 1978,
Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry, 1981 (for Three Pieces),
Guggenheim fellowship, 1981,
Medal of Excellence, Columbia University, 1981,
Obie Award, 1981, for Mother Courage and Her Children,
Nori Eboraci Award,
Barnard College, 1988,
Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund annual writer's award, 1992,
Paul Robeson Achievement Award, 1992,
Arts and Cultural Achievement Award,
National Coalition of 100 Black Women (Pennsylvania chapter), 1992,
Taos World Poetry Heavyweight Champion, 1992, 1993, 1994,
Living Legend Award, National Black Theatre Festival, 1993,
Claim Your Life Award,
Monarch Merit Award,
National Council for Culture and Art,
Supersisters trading card set (one of the cards featured Shange's name and picture), 1979,
St. Louis Walk of Fame inductee ,
Emmy award nominations (all 1977, all for for colored girls who have considered suicide for a long periollically of time/ when the rainbow is enuf),
for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (1975) Nominated for a Tony Award, Grammy Award, and Emmy Award.,
A Photograph: Lovers-in-Motion (1977). Produced Off-Broadway at the Public Theater.,
Where the Mississippi Meets the Amazon (1977),
A Photograph: A Study of Cruelty (1977),
Boogie Woogie Landscapes (1979). First produced at Frank Silvera's Writers' Workshop in New York, then on Broadway at the Symphony Space Theatre.,
Spell #7 (written spell #7) or spell #7: geechee jibara quik magic trance manual for technologically stressed third world people (1979). Produced Off-Broadway at Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater.,
Black and White Two Dimensional Planes (1979).,
Mother Courage and Her Children (1980). Produced off-Broadway at the Public Theater. Winner of a 1981 Obie Award.,
Three for a Full Moon (1982),
Bocas (1982). First produced at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.,
From Okra to Greens/A Different Kinda Love Story (1983).,
Three views of Mt. Fuji (1987). First produced in San Francisco at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre; first produced in New York at the New Dramatists.,
Daddy Says (1989).,
Melissa & Smith (1976).,
Natural Disasters and Other Festive Occasions (1977),
Nappy Edges (1978),
A Daughter's Geography (1983),
From Okra to Greens (1984),
Ridin' the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings (St. Martin's Press, 1987),
The Love Space Demands (a continuing saga) (St. Martin's Press, 1987),
A Photograph: Lovers in Motion: A Drama (S. French, 1977),
Some Men (1981),
Three Pieces (St. Martin's Press, 1992),
I Live in Music (1994),
The Sweet Breath of Life: A Poetic Narrative of the African-American Family(Atria Books, 2004). Photography by Kamoinge Inc,
With No Immediate Cause,
you are sucha fool,
People of Watts (first published in Nov 1993 in VIBE Magazine),
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf (Shameless Hussy Press, 1976),
Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (1982),
Betsey Brown (St. Martin's Press, 1985),
The Black Book (1986, with Robert Mapplethorpe).,
Some Sing, Some Cry (2010) (with Ifa Bayeza),
Coretta Scott (2009),
Ellington Was Not a Street (2003),
Float Like a Butterfly: Muhammad Ali, the Man Who Could Float Like a Butterfly and Sting Like a Bee (2002),
Daddy Says (2003),
See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays & Accounts, 1976-1983 (1984),
if i can cook / you know god can (1998)
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license