By Turner, Beth
Black Masks , Vol. 11, No. 3
Ntozake Shange: Moving To The Ends of Her Own Rainbow.
True to her Zulu surname, Ntozake Shange "walks like a lion" within the confines of the small Recital Hall at Henry Street Settlement's Abrons Art Center on the Lower East Side of New York. She is in the midst of directing the 20th Anniversary revival of the New Federal Theatre production of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. With Mickey Davidson, choreographer; Craig Harris, musical composer; and seven actresses discovering the dynamics of becoming new "colored girls," Shange returns to her seminal work with energy and enthusiasm. After twenty years of a prodigious literary, dramatic and performance career, amazingly, she still captures the spontaneity, freshness and excitement of the show's earliest performances.
After pacing quietly but tautly in the back row of the theatre, Shange pounces down the steps to the stage to administer some hands-on blocking. She asks the stage manager, Jacqui Casto, for the next few lines for two of the actresses. It quickly becomes obvious that this production is no dusting off of an etched-in-stone classic. Casto calls out, "Lady in Gold says..." Lady in Gold? What happened to Lady in Yellow. The Ladies in Blue, Green, Brown, Purple and Red have also segued into Aqua, Mint, Pink, Violet, and Rose. The Lady in Orange, originally played by Shange, remains the same.
The color update is only the first surprise. Casto continues, "Lady in Gold says, `HIV test? oh, baby, i forgot. i'm so sorry.' Lady in Pink answers, `oh, my god! i meant to put on a condom but it was so-o-o good. i'm sorry.' "New text! As in its early pre-Broadway life, for colored girls...is still evolving!
"I'm having as much fun as I did when I did it in San Francisco," exudes Shange. Back then, Shange also directed her piece, but she points out, "I didn't know that I was directing. I was just doing my work. We didn't have names for it." In actuality, she was a one-person production company for the original play. "I remember I fired two bands," she says. "I cut the number of band members down because I didn't have enough to pay them. I was also my own publicist...I would get up at dawn and go around and put [flyers] on telephone poles and in windows and barber shops," she laughs. "So this is fun not to have to do all those things now."
Born in Trenton, New Jersey on October 18, 1948, the then Paulette Williams grew up as one of four children in a solidly middle-class environment. Her father, Paul T. Williams, a surgeon, and her mother, Eloise O. Williams, a social work educator, provided a financially secure, stable family where both education and African American heritage were prized.
When she was eight years old, a family move to St. Louis, Missouri brought new experiences and challenges. It was the mid 1950s, just a couple of years after the Supreme Court Brown vs. The Board of Education decision banning the segregation of schools. Paulette found herself among the first waves of Black students being bussed to a German-American school where she encountered racist attitudes. The school's saving grace, however, was its strong program in literature, music, dance, and art.
After five years in St. Louis, the family returned to New Jersey. Yet, the influence of the St. Louis sojourn, during her very impressionable preadolescent years, is indelibly etched in Shange's senses and in her work. Even today, she says, "St. Louis. I can almost still smell the air there when I dream." The city also provided the landscape for some of Shange's most poignant writing on prepubescent girls, such as in the choreopoem "Toussaint L'Ouverture" from for colored girls...("no tellin what all spirits we cd move/ down by the river/st. louis 1955"); and especially in her novel, Betsey Brown.
Back in New Jersey, on the threshhold of womanhood, Paulette became increasingly aware of the limitations on Black women in America. …