NTOZAKE SHANGE was bom Paulette Williams on October 18, 1948, in Trenton, New Jersey, the oldest child of a surgeon and a social worker. With her two younger brothers and sister she grew up in Trenton, at an air force base in upstate New York, and in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father painted and played percussion in addition to his duties as a physician, and she met many leading black figures in sports and the arts. She read widely as a child, and in her teens began to rebel against her privileged life. A turning point occurred when she was bussed to an all-white school for the gifted in St. Louis; she was, she says, unprepared for the hostility and harassment of white students.
Paulette Williams went on the Barnard College, where she majored in American studies, specializing in black American music and poetry. At Barnard she became active in the civil rights movement. After graduation in 1970 she went to the University of Southern California, teaching while earning a master's degree in American studies; the following year she changed her name, after consulting friends from the Xhosa tribe, who baptized her in the Pacific Ocean with her new African name. Ntozake means "she who comes with her own things"; Shange means "who walks like a lion."
Shange went on to teach in the women's studies program at Sonoma State College and began writing poetry intensively. Soon she was reading it at women's bars, accompanied by friends who were musicians and dancers. Out of these performances grew her first theatrical production, or "choreopoem," For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, a celebration of the survival and triumph of black women. Shange and her friend, choreographer Paula Moss, moved to New York City in the mid-1970s and first performed For Colored Girls in a jazz loft in SoHo in July 1975. The show evolved through a series of highly successful Off‐ Broadway productions, then opened uptown at the Booth Theatre in the fall of 1976; it was published in book form the next year. Shange, who had been in the show's cast since its first performance, remained in the Broadway