WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO INTERVIEW NTOZAKE SHANGE? For me, it felt like something coming full circle. What we in the hip-hop theatre and spoken word movements owe her is both enormous and obvious: Shange is one of the supreme pioneers of her generation in terms of presenting verse on stage; in terms of actors melding speech, song and movement to create character and story; in terms of performers using various extensions of their spirit to share an experience on stage. From our vantage point, she's the matriarch of the whole thing.
The great range of her accomplishments--as poet, playwright, actor, director, novelist and educator--was recognized over the past two months in celebrations of her work on both the East and West Coasts. In New York City, New Federal Theatre organized a monthlong retrospective of events and performances that included readings, panels and a revised version of Shange's 1980 piece about pre-urban-renewal African-American life, It Hasn't Always Been This Way, directed and choreographed by Dianne McIntyre. In San Francisco, excerpts from her poetic novel Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter were combined with the writings of Indo-Mexican poet Jimmy Santiago Baca to form the text of A Place to Stand, a new "experiment in performative storytelling" (as director Sean San Jose described it) by Campo Santo at Intersection for the Arts, with Shange's daughter Savannah leading the cast.
When I talked with Shange at New Federal's Lower Manhattan offices in late February, she had attended some of the New York events but had yet to see A Place to Stand. Shange suffered a stroke in 2004 at age 55, and it has slowed her speech as well as her ability to write. In the past two-and-a-half years, Shange says, she has been able to complete only three poems--a fragment of her former output. "I have to search for words sometimes," she cautioned at the outset of our interview. "You can include that I said that, because it's important that people know that my relationship to language is not the same that it's always been."
She was, nevertheless, more eloquent, more cogent, than I believe I could ever be. I had met Shange briefly …