Ntozake Shange

Ntozake Shange is an African-American feminist playwright, poet, dancer and novelist. Born Paulette Linda Williams, she adopted a Zulu name in 1971 – Ntozake, which means "she who comes with her own things," and Shange, meaning "she who walks like a lion."

Born in Trenton, New Jersey, on October 18, 1948, Shange was the oldest of four children in a middle-class family. Her father was a surgeon and her mother a psychiatric social worker and educator. Shange's interest in drama and creative expression stems from her family's Sunday afternoon variety shows, consisting of her mother reading Shakespeare, her father playing the congas, and her and her siblings dancing and playing musical instruments.

When Shange was eight, her family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, but returned to New Jersey five years later. While in St Louis, she was one of the first blacks to be integrated into the public school system. She endured harassment and attacks by fellow students in the predominantly white school. These experiences influenced her later writings, including her fictionalized account, Betsey Brown, published in 1985.

At the age of 18, Shange married a law student. They separate soon afterwards, and she attempted suicide a number of times. Later in life, Shange discovered that she was bi-polar and suffering from clinical depression. Recovering from her suicide attempts, Shange subsequently received a degree in American studies with honors in 1970 from Barnard College, and a Masters in American Studies in 1973 from the University of Southern California.

For the next three years, she was a lecturer in women's studies, the humanities, African-American studies, drama and creative writing at Mills College in Oakland, Sonoma State College, and at the University of California extension in San Francisco. At night, she began writing poetry and studying dance, and involved herself in a community of artists and authors. She performed in dance productions and produced her own unconventional multi-genre "choreopoem" (the name by Shange to the form), which brought her both local and international fame and launched her career as a poet and playwright.

Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf consists of 20 poems that are combined with drama, dance and music, and performed by seven actresses. The storyline focuses on the restoration of the life of a black girl who has been silenced, and deals with issues faced by African-American women, including love, rape, abortion and abandonment. In 1975, Shange moved to New York where the play appeared on Broadway (only the second play by a black woman to have been performed there), running for 747 performances.

Shange toured with the play across the United States and internationally, winning many prizes, as well as nominations for Tony, Emmy and Grammy awards. The play was seen as a lightning rod for the nascent black feminist movement. However, it was also censured by some African Americans for portraying how black men discriminate against black women, rather than addressing what these critics viewed as the root cause of black female oppression – the actions of white men. The play was published in book form in 1977 and made into a film produced by Tyler Perry, For Colored Girls, released in 2010.

Following Shange's second marriage in 1977, she moved to Houston, where she held academic positions at Rice University and the University of Houston. In 1989, she returned to New York. Shange has written many plays and published several books of poetry and essays, children's books and novels. Most of her works focus on issues relating to race and feminism. Shange is known for her unconventional use of language, including unorthodox spelling and punctuation, as well as slang and idioms that are common among certain African-American groups.

Shange has served in a number of academic roles at other institutions, where she has been in a position to assist aspiring artists. Shange has won many awards for her works, including the Obie Award, a Guggenheim fellowship and a Medal of Excellence from Columbia University.

After suffering strokes in 2004 and 2007, Shange underwent intensive rehabilitation to relearn how to speak and write.

Ntozake Shange: Selected full-text books and articles

Scars of Conquest/Masks of Resistance: The Invention of Cultural Identities in African, African-American, and Caribbean Drama By Tejumola Olaniyan Oxford University Press, 1995
Librarian's tip: Chap. 6 "Ntozake Shange: The Vengeance of Difference, or the Gender of Black Cultural Identity"
Black American Women Poets and Dramatists By Harold Bloom Chelsea House, 1996
Librarian's tip: "Ntozake Shange: B. 1948" begins on p. 204
Arms Akimbo: Africana Women in Contemporary Literature By Janice Lee Liddell; Yakini Belinda Kemp University Press of Florida, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "A Woman's Art; a Woman's Craft: The Self in Ntozake Shange's Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo"
Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America By Elizabeth Brown-Guillory Praeger, 1990
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, Ntozake Shange: Carving a Place for Themselves on the American Stage"
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