An Artistic Fusion Thirty Years in the Making; Ntozake Shange Mikell Pinkney

Article excerpt

JUAN PEDRO: & sometimes young colored boys bleed to death face down on asphalt cuz fallin' to they knees was not cool/

was not the way to go/

KUKA: it still ain't/

(From the rehearsal script of Ntozake Shange's new theatre piece, lavender lizards & lilac landminds: layla's dream.)

FOR OVER TWO DECADES now, writer Ntozake Shange and director Mikell Pinkney have been on an artistic collision course that seems to have been planned by the powers of the universe. These two African-American artists broke into the theatre scene at the end of the seventies and have been gathering momentum as they traveled along separate artistic paths. They bring with them bags full of ground-breaking moments, accomplishments, dreams; a collision/fusion of minds and spirits is inevitable now that Shange has joined Pinkney on the faculty of the University of Florida. The stage is set: Shange's free-spirited, defiant, rule-breaking style meets Pinkney's insatiable passion for text and analysis. The poet meets the theorist and the possibilities are exhilarating.

Shange's new theater piece, lavender lizards and lilac landmines: layla's dream, is the first creation of this artistic collaboration. It is set to open at Constans Theatre on the campus of the University of Florida on April 4, 2003. Pinkney will direct and Dyane Harvey will choreograph. Jomandi Theatre of Atlanta is scheduled to present the professional debut later in the summer.

Preliminary ideas for a new Shange piece floated in the air as early as January 2001 but concrete discussions did not begin until Shange arrived in Florida in July 2002. In a collaborative effort, Pinkney and Shange developed a working formula that has brought quick results and builds on Pinkney's analytical skills and Shange's abilities as a fast, poignant writer. Pinkney's first suggestion was to go back to the choreopoem style and, after flirting with a couple of thoughts, Shange proposed writing a piece about Layla, the main character from her earlier work, Boogie Woogie Landscapes. By the end of October, she produced a first draft. In lavender lizards..., Shange has seamlessly woven a series of poems written at various stages of her life with new works to create one expanded poem. The lavender lizards script tells the story of the self-liberation of a woman caught in the middle of a personal struggle between soul and spirit. The choreopoem has evolved; to its original elements of music, poetry and movement, it now includes a direct storyline with clearly defined and well-developed characters.

Everything started in 1976 when Shange introduced the choreopoem as a theatrical expressive form and earned a place in theatre history. That was when for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, a compilation of her poems, moved to Broadway and brought attention to poetry and the beauty of the rhythmic spoken word in harmony with music and movement. Pinkney still remembers vividly reading the New York Times' one-page advertisement that announced the move of colored girls to Broadway. He felt something special was happening in theatre and he had to be part of it. So, he cut short his Ph.D. studies at The University of Michigan and moved to New York to pursue his own artistic career.

Pinkhey saw colored girls five times and developed a deep admiration for Shange's style that continues today. In 1981, five years after his arrival in New York, he was responsible for moving Inacent Black by A. Marcus Hemphill, from the Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn to Broadway. Inacent Black was a landmark production because it was a people's project that moved to the Big White Way on the strength of the contribution of the initial funds by Black people from Brooklyn. Furthermore, when Inacent Black opened at the Biltmore Theatre, Pinkney became the youngest African-American to direct for the Broadway stage.

In the 1980s and '90s, Shange and Pinkney both were personalities in the New York theatre scene. …