Catching Up with Ntozake Shange Her Innovations in Stage Verse and Movement Have Inspired a New Generation

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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 at the National Black Theatre Festival in 1999, but my primary association with her had been through reading and seeing her plays and, not coincidentally, being mentored by a number of her contemporaries, artists who came of age with her in the early '70s in the Bay Area, where I was raised. The radio DJ and cultural activist Avotcja, a collaborator of Shange's, was a mentor of mine; so was Laurie Carlos, a cast member in for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (it was Carlos who convinced Penumbra Theatre Company of St. Paul, Minn., to commission my solo work Flow, before New York Theatre Workshop or others got involved). Aku Kadogo, who also appeared in for colored girls, recently hosted me as a visiting artist at Wayne State University, where she teaches, and her goddaughter Amber Efe played the DJ in my play The Seven. Paula Moss, who created for colored girls's choreography with Shange and accompanied the show from San Francisco to New York, is a cousin of mine.

The point of noting these connections is to say that I believe these artists understood the linkages between Shange's innovations for the stage and the kind of work we have more recently been developing in the hip-hop theatre movement. Speaking with Shange, I was fascinated not just by her reaffirmation of the theatrical use of verse, and of the Bay Area's formative influence on her work, but also by her entrepreneurial spirit; a lot of us in our generation have the same feeling--that we have to make it happen for ourselves. We began doing hip-hop theatre in night clubs, on street corners, in bars and poetry spots before we started moving into traditional theatres. Her story reminds me of all that.

Sitting with her face to face, I could feel Ntozake Shange's amazing spirit. …