Ntozake Shange: Resurrecting Her Writing

Article excerpt

AFTER A rough start to a rough morning, Ntozake Shange is settling down. She has been ill all night and still does not feel well. She's grumpy at being asked to meet at her home instead of at a restaurant and annoyed that a photographer showed up 10 minutes early.

But Shange, the playwright and poet whose play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf" was a hit of the 1976-77 Broadway season, has a new novel to talk about, so she puts all that aside and turns on her charm. Extending a manicured hand, she reintroduces herself.

"Let's start again," she says. "Hi. I'm Zake." Then she pours everyone a cup of amaretto coffee and, heading toward the bathroom, announces that she will return once her makeup is applied.

"Nobody takes a picture of me without my makeup," she says, wagging a finger at the photographer with a smile.

This from a passionate feminist who as long ago as 1971 adopted the Zulu name Ntozake Shange (en-toh-ZAH-kee SHAHN-gay), Ntozake meaning "she who comes with her own things" and Shange "who walks like a lion." In doing so, she abandoned her birth name, Paulette ("as a feminist I thought it was ridiculous to be named after a boy," she says).

Shange, whose novel "Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter" has just been published by St. Martin's Press, lives with her 13-year-old daughter, Savannah, in a converted brick factory in Philadelphia's artsy waterfront district known as Olde City.

Shange, listed in "Who's Who in America" as divorced, is coy about her personal life. Asked her marital status, she responds, "I'm a happy woman."

Her split-level apartment teems with books, magazines, photographs, cats (four), framed book jackets of her works and arresting pieces of art. Among the art pieces are a miniature slave auction whose tiny clay figures stand bound in clay rope and a huge painting of a baby boy that hangs above the stairway. A tiny flower blooms where the baby's genitalia should be.

In the tiny kitchen where Shange pours the coffee, cookbooks and bottles of exotic sauces line the shelves, testament to the author's passion for cooking. She is, she says, especially enamored of Japanese and French dishes.

"I already knew how to cook colored, so that wasn't even an issue," she says.

Wearing a white sweater and black pants, Shange spreads her tools across the bathroom counter, her blond and brown braids spilling down across her face. "This is why writers are so boring," she says. "They think they're so intelligent they don't have to bother making up their face. I know better because I'm an actress. …