Ntozake Shange: Stuff of Legend Where She Is Now, 20 Years after 'Girls'

Article excerpt

TWENTY years ago, a play by an unknown author swept onto the stage at New York's Public Theater and swept the audience to its feet.

"For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf" was like nothing anyone had ever seen. It wasn't even a play, strictly speaking; the author, Ntozake Shange, called it a choreopoem.

The description seemed apt. Members of the small, female ensemble (including, at the time, Shange herself) danced passionately, dressed in swirling, colorful costumes evocative of Martha Graham.

They spoke even more passionately, always about aspects of black women's lives. By turns their words were funny or grim, sweet or heart-wrenching, touching or terrifying. It wasn't dialogue, though, not in any usual sense. It didn't aim for conversational naturalism, or for oratorical splendor. It was poetry.

And it was immensely popular; in the years that followed, it was produced widely. Now the St. Louis Black Repertory Company, which presented "For Colored Girls . . ." last fall, is mounting the show again as a fund-raiser.

It will be presented at the Mildred Bastian Theatre at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. A fourth performance in the series, next Sunday at 3 p.m., is already sold out.

Why has the play held up so well that, years later, it's the choice that the Black Rep makes when it wants to be sure of drawing a crowd?

"I don't think that's a question you ask me," Shange said, from her home in Philadelphia. "I can't account for other people's responses.

"Hopefully, it lasts because I wrote it well - with passion, with some eccentric images that appeal to people, and with some ethical points that hold sway with a lot of American women."

Ron Himes, artistic director of the Black Rep and director of the company's production, noted that last fall's production - which went on to a successful six-week run in Philadelphia - was the first time that the Black Rep, also 20 years old, ever staged "For Colored Girls . . ."

"We've done other works of Ntozake Shange's, but years ago, it was one of those pieces everybody was doing," he said. "All the colleges did it. The national tour had been here, twice. We decided to choose something else by the same author.

"But this year, the time was right. There's a whole new generation of people going to the theater now who haven't seen the work. In a lot of ways, it's new.

"And certainly, the issues that the play speaks to are just as relevant today as they were 20 years ago."

Though Shange, at 47, remains committed to those issues, "For Colored Girls . . ." is not her personal, defining statement. "I don't begrudge anybody who likes my work, but I don't need to see it anymore," she said. "I rarely see productions of it, unless I am involved in some way. I don't see much reason to go. I know what is in it."

Besides, she doesn't want to live in the past. Since "For Colored Girls . . .," she's turned out volumes of poetry, novels, criticism, other plays. "Liliane," a novel, came out about a year and a half ago.

Currently she's at work on two books. Shange and her sister, Ifa Bayaza, are writing a novel, "Some Sing, Some Cry," dealing with seven generations of women in a large family, all of whom are involved in some aspect of the evolution of black music.

She's also writing a non-fiction work, a history of African-American cuisine. …

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