October 18th – Ntozake Shange

“Creation is everything you do. Make something.”

Ntozake Shange

Playwright and poet Ntozake Shange was born Paulette Linda Williams on October 18th, 1948, in Trenton, New Jersey. Her father was a surgeon, and her mother an educator and psychiatric social worker. Her parents had a strong interest in the arts, and guests at their home included Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, and W.E.B. DuBois. At the age of eight, her family moved to Saint Louis. It was more racially segregated than New Jersey, and she faced racism and harassment when bused to a non-segregated school. By the age of 13, her family returned to New Jersey. 

After high school, she attended Barnard College, graduating with a degree in American Studies. She married during her first year of college, but it did not last long, and the resulting heartbreak in the aftermath led her to attempt suicide.

In 1971 she changed her name, Ntozake in Zulu, meaning “she who comes with her own things,” and Shange meaning “who walks like a lion.” Shange earned a master’s at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. In a women’s bar in California, Shange began performing her most famous work, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf.

She continued to perform her play in small theatres after she moved to New York in 1975. It grew in popularity, and in 1976, when she was just 27 years old, it opened on Broadway at the Booth Theatre. The play was nominated for a Tony and awarded an Obie. Shange played the Lady in Orange, one of the seven black characters named for colors of the rainbow.  She was only the second African American woman to have a play on Broadway. 

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf. was published in book form in 1977.

 In 1982 For Colored Girls was an American Playhouse production of PBS, and in 2010 it was made into a feature film by Terry Perry, starring Janet Jackson, Kerry Washing, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, and Whoopi Goldberg. 

She was married to the saxophonist David Murray, and the painter McArthur Binion, and had a daughter, Savannah, in 1981. 

Shange’s other 15 plays include “A Photograph: A Study of Cruelty” (1977), “Boogie Woogie Landscapes” (1977), “Spell No. 7” (1979) and “Black and White Two Dimensional Planes” (1979).

Her list of published works includes 19 poetry collections, six novels, five children’s books and three collections of essays. The novels included Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (1982), Liliane (1994), and Betsey Brown (1985), and  Some Sing, Some Cry, written with her sister, the playwright Ifa Bayeza. 

During her lifetime Shange received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize, among numerous other awards. 

In 2004 she suffered a series of strokes but continued to work through her illness. Ntozake Shange died in her sleep on October 27th, 2018, at the age of 70. 

Lesson from Shange

Shange struggled with feeling voiceless, and was severely depressed in her early twenties – so much so that she attempted suicide multiple times. But she transformed the world when she turned her suffering to poetry and performed it on the stage, giving a voice and hope to countless women through her art.

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