Remembering Ntozake Shange

Ntozake Shange (right) in a scene from her play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, a seven woman ensemble that was nominated for a Tony Award in 1977.

Ntozake Shange, whose choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf ran on Broadway for 742 shows between 1976 and 1978, making her the second Black woman to have her work performed on Broadway, died on October 27 at age 70. (The first was Lorraine Hansberry with “A Raisin in the Sun,” in 1959.) Besides her canonical play for colored girls, Shange was the author of more than a dozen other plays, four novels, five children’s books, and several collections of poetry. She’d suffered a long illness, but released a new collection of poems  just last fall, and had been working on another new book and performing spoken word around the United States in recent months.

Shange was raised in an upper middle class household in New Jersey and St. Louis where luminaries like W.E.B. DuBois and Miles Davis encircled the family. She took degrees from Barnard and USC. In a 2010 piece for The New Yorker about the feature film adaptation of for colored girls produced by Tyler Perry, Hilton Als said seeing the show  in 1977 was an introduction to a familiar yet dazzling “world of unimpeachable cool.” It showed seven different Black women on a stage dancing, singing, and speaking a language that was determinedly itself and not at all stilted by pressure to be polite or respectable. In Shange’s words, it made, “drama of our lives,” and showed future artists who were queer, female, and / or people of color that the stuff of their specific worlds was good enough material to create from.

Shange’s death produced an outpouring on the internet, and it’s a loss that marks a shift. The access and visibility of queer and female people of color in mainstream media is something we can very well nearly take for granted, and the reckonings around sexual misconduct in the public sphere owe much to the space Black women like Shange, who in for colored girls and other works “explor[ed] the various trials that black women often confronted, from rape and abortion to domestic violence and child abuse,” opened up in the ’70s.

we are compelled to examine these giants in order to give ourselves what we think they gave the worlds they lived in

Ntozake Shange, from the forward to three pieces (spell #7, a photograph: lovers in motion, and boogie woogie landscapes) 

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