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Ntozake Shange (1948-) - Sidelights

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An accomplished poet and novelist, Ntozake Shange is best known for her play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. A unique blend of poetry, music, dance and drama called a "choreopoem," it was still being produced around the country decades after its debut in 1975 on Broadway. In the 1990s Shange expanded her writing and began publishing books for children and young adults, such as Daddy Says and Ellington Was Not a Street.

Born to a surgeon and an educator, Ntozake Shange—originally named Paulette Williams—was raised in a black middle-class family. Breaking out on her own after college proved difficult, as one by one, the roles she chose for herself—including war correspondent and jazz musician—were dismissed by her parents as "no good for a woman," she told Stella Dong in a Publishers Weekly interview. She chose to become a writer because "there was nothing left." Frustrated and hurt after separating from her first husband, Shange attempted suicide several times before focusing her rage against the limitations society imposes on black women. While earning a master's degree in American studies from the University of Southern California, she took the African name meaning "she who comes with her own things" and she "who walks like a lion." Since then she has sustained a triple career as an educator, a performer/director in New York and Houston, and a writer whose works draw heavily on her experiences and the frustrations of being a black female in America.

Writing dramatic poetry became Shange's way to express her dissatisfaction with the role of black women in society. Joining with musicians and the choreographer-dancer Paula Moss, she created improvisational works comprised of poetry, music, and dance that were performed in bars in San Francisco and New York. When Moss and Shange moved to New York City, they presented For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide at a Soho jazz loft, the Studio Rivbea. Director Oz Scott saw the show and with his help the work was performed in bars on the Lower East Side. Impressed by one of these, producer Woodie King, Jr., joined Scott to stage the choreopoem off-Broadway at the New Federal Theatre, where it ran successfully from November 1975, to the following June. Then Joseph Papp became the show's producer at the New York Shakespeare Festival's Anspacher Public Theatre. From there, it moved to the Booth Theatre uptown.

In For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, poems dramatized by female dancers recall encounters with classmates, lovers, rapists, abortionists, and latent killers. The women survive the abuses and disappointments put upon them by the men in their lives and come to recognize in each other, dressed in the colors of Shange's personal rainbow, the promise of a better future. In unison, at the end, they declare, "i found god in myself / and i loved her / . . . fiercely." "The poetry," stated Marilyn Stasio in Cue, "touches some very tender nerve endings. Although roughly structured and stylistically unrefined, this fierce and passionate poetry has the power to move a body to tears, to rage, and to an ultimate rush of love."

A similar work, Spell #7: A Geechee Quick Magic Trance Manual, concerns nine characters in a New York bar who discuss the racism black artists contend with in the entertainment world. At one point, the all-black cast appears in overalls and minstrel-show blackface to address the pressure placed on the black artist to fit a stereotype in order to succeed.

Shange's poetry books, like her theater pieces, are distinctively original; she takes many liberties with the conventions of written English, using nonstandard spellings and punctuation. While some reviewers maintained that these innovations present unnecessary obstacles to readers, Shange justified her use of "lower-case letters, slashes, and spelling" to Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work, noting: "I like the idea that letters dance. . . . I need some visual stimulation, so that reading becomes not just a passive act and more than an intellectual activity, but demands rigorous participation." She also takes liberties with the conventions of fiction writing in such novels as Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo and Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter. A mix of verse, incantations, letters, and spells, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo focuses on sisters who find different ways to cope with their love relationships, while in Liliane a woman undergoes psychoanalysis in an attempt to better understand the events of her life, particularly her mother's decision to abandon the family for a white man when Liliane was a child. Shange "offers a daring portrait of a black woman artist re-creating herself out of social and psychological chaos," remarked Kelly Cherry in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

In 1997 Shange published Whitewash, her first picture book for young readers. Based on actual events, Whitewash concerns an African-American girl, Helene-Angel, and her brother, Mauricio, who are the victims of a racial attack by a white gang. The thugs beat Mauricio and cover Helene-Angel's face with white paint. In the days after the assault, the pair are so upset that they refuse to leave their home, until Helene-Angel's classmates visit and offer their support. Jennifer Ralston, writing in School Library Journal, called the work "powerful," and a Publishers Weekly reviewer observed that Shange's "characters speak in tones of shock and pain that clearly convey the seriousness of the issues here."

Boxing great Muhammad Ali is the subject of the 2002 picture book Float like a Butterfly. In an interview with Clarence V. Reynolds in Black Issues Book Review, Shange said she approached the work with great enthusiasm: "Ali came to dinner at [my] house when I was teenager, and I saw quite a different man from the macho man that everybody else saw. Not only was he impressive and intelligent, he was surprisingly soft-spoken. This project gave me a chance to honor him." The story follows Ali through his childhood in the segregated South, his gold medal performance at the 1960 Olympics, his reign as heavyweight boxing champion, and his conversion to Islam. In Float like a Butterfly, Shange "has masterfully captured the unique cadence of Ali's voice as she offers an unabashedly positive story that will leave kids cheering," remarked Booklist contributor John Green.

The young-adult novel Daddy Says "fills a niche by portraying African-American girls in a western context," observed a critic in Kirkus Reviews. Published in 2003, the novel takes place on an East Texas ranch, where sisters Lucie-Marie and Annie Sharon are coping with the death of their mother, a rodeo champion, and their father's relationship with his new girlfriend. To regain her father's attention, Annie Sharon attempts to ride the same horse that killed her mother, a risky decision that places her own life in danger. Daddy Says received mixed reviews. In Publishers Weekly a critic wrote that while "the story provides enough action to keep pages turning, . . . the heart-felt moments are too few," and School Library Journal contributor Carol A. Edwards stated, "Despite strong characters and a lively setting, this novel is disjointed and unsatisfying, which is a shame, since Shange is clearly capable of portraying rivalry and competitive spirit realistically."Ellington Was Not a Street, a 2004 picture book, "is a paean to Shange's family home and the exciting men who gathered there," noted Ilene Cooper in Booklist. The family's illustrious visitors included musicians Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, actor Paul Robeson, activist W. E. B. DuBois, and Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the former president of Ghana. The text of the story is taken from Shange's poem "Mood Indigo," found in her 1983 collection, A Daughter's Geography; according to a Kirkus Reviews critic, "The poetic text is spare, with only a few words on each spread, but they match the majesty of the scene." Reviewing Ellington Was Not a Street, a reviewer in Ebony called the work a "heartfelt homage to [a] community of artists and innovators," while a Publishers Weekly reviewer deemed it an "elegiac tribute to a select group of African-American men who made important contributions to twentieth-century culture."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

African-American Writers, 2nd edition, Scribner (New York, NY), 2001.

Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig, editors, Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, Beech Tree Books, 1987.

Contemporary Dramatists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 8, 1978, Volume 25, 1983, Volume 38, 1986, Volume 74, 1993, Volume 26, 2000.

Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 38: Afro-American Writers after 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, 1985; Volume 249: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, Third Series, 2002.

Drama for Students, Volume 2, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1997.

Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Volume 23, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2003.

Tate, Claudia, editor, Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum (New York, NY), 1983.


PERIODICALS

African American Review, spring, 1992; summer, 1992.

American Black Review, September, 1983; March, 1986.

Back Stage, June 30, 1995, Ira J. Bilowit, "Twenty Years Later, Shange's 'Colored Girls' Take a New Look at Life," pp. 15-16.

Black Issues Book Review, November-December, 2002, Clarence V. Reynolds, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Fairy Tales," review of Float like a Butterfly, p. 42; March-April, 2003, review of Daddy Says, p. 66; November-December, 2004, Patricia Spears Jones, review of The Sweet Breath of Life: A Poetic Narrative of the African-American Family, p. 46.

Black Scholar, March, 1979; March, 1981; December, 1982; July, 1985; winter, 1996, p. 68; summer, 1996, p. 67.

Booklist, April 15, 1987; May 15, 1991; January 1, 1998, Alice Joyce, review of If I Can Cook/You Know God Can, pp. 759-76; October 15, 1999, Vanessa Bush, review of The Beacon Best of 1999: Creative Writing by Women and Men of All Colors, p. 1837; June 1, 2001, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Betsey Brown, p. 1837; September 1, 2002, John Green, review of Float like a Butterfly, p. 131; February 15, 2004, Ilene Cooper, review of Ellington Was Not a Street, p. 1070; October 15, 2004, Janet St. John, review of The Sweet Breath of Life, p. 382.

Chicago Tribune, October 21, 1982.

Chicago Tribune Book World, July 1, 1979; September 8, 1985.

Christian Science Monitor, September 9, 1976; October 8, 1982; May 2, 1986.

Cue, June 26, 1976.

Ebony, March, 2004, review of Ellington Was Not a Street, p. 28.

Entertainment Weekly, March 10, 1995, p. 65; March 20, 1998, Carmela Ciuraru, review of If I Can Cook/You Know God Can, p. 84.

Essence, November, 1976; May, 1985, "Ntozake Shange Talks with Marcia Ann Gillespie," pp. 122-123; June, 1985; August, 1991; December, 2004, Douglas Danoff, review of The Sweet Breath of Life, p. 134.

Horizon, September, 1977.

Horn Book, November-December, 2002, Peter D. Sieruta, review of Float like a Butterfly, p. 781.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2002, review of Float like a Butterfly, p. 1320; December 1, 2002, review of Daddy Says, p. 1773; November 15, 2003, review of Ellington Was Not a Street, p. 1364.

Kliatt, January, 1989.

Library Journal, May 1, 1987; January, 1998, Wendy Miller, review of If I Can Cook/You Know God Can, p. 130; October 15, 1999, Louis J. Parascandola, review of The Beacon Best of 1999, p. 70; September 1, 2004, Doris Lynch, review of The Sweet Breath of Life, pp. 155-156.

Los Angeles Times, October 20, 1982; June 11, 1985; July 28, 1987.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 22, 1982; October 20, 1982; January 8, 1984; July 29, 1984; June 11, 1985; July 19, 1987; December 18, 1994, p. 12.

New Statesman, October 4, 1985; May 19, 1995, p. 37.

Newsweek, June 14, 1976; July 30, 1979.

New York Daily News, July 16, 1979.

New Yorker, June 14, 1976; August 2, 1976; January 2, 1978.

New York Times, June 16, 1976; December 22, 1977; June 4, 1979; June 8, 1979; July 16, 1979; July 22, 1979; May 14, 1980; June 15, 1980; September 3, 1995, Andrea Stevens, "For Colored Girls May Be for the Ages," p. H5.

New York Times Book Review, June 25, 1979; July 16, 1979; October 21, 1979; September 12, 1982; May 12, 1985; April 6, 1986; January 1, 1995, p. 6; October 15, 1995, p. 36; February 25, 1996, p. 32.

New York Times Magazine, May 1, 1983.

Publishers Weekly, May 3, 1985; November 14, 1994, p. 65; January 1, 1996, p. 69; November 3, 1997, review of Whitewash, p. 85; September 20, 1999, review of The Beacon Best of 1999, p. 65; September 16, 2002, review of Float like a Butterfly, p. 68; November 25, 2002, review of Daddy Says, p. 68; December 22, 2003, review of Ellington Was Not a Street, p. 59; August 2, 2004, review of The Sweet Breath of Life, p. 66.

Saturday Review, February 18, 1978; May/June, 1985.

School Library Journal, October, 2002, Ajoke' T. I. Kokodoko, review of Float like a Butterfly, p. 152; February, 2003, Carol A. Edwards, review of Daddy Says, p. 148; October, 2003, Jennifer Ralston, review of Whitewash, p. 98; January, 2004, Mary N. Oluonye, review of Ellington Was Not a Street, p. 122.

Time, June 14, 1976; July 19, 1976; November 1, 1976.

Times (London, England), April 21, 1983.

Times Literary Supplement, December 6, 1985; April 15-21, 1988.

Variety, July 25, 1979.

Village Voice, August 16, 1976; July 23, 1979; June 18, 1985.

Voice Literary Supplement, August, 1991; September, 1991.

Washington Post, June 12, 1976; June 29, 1976; February 23, 1982; June 17, 1985.

Washington Post Book World, October 15, 1978; July 19, 1981; August 22, 1982; August 5, 1984; February 5, 1995, p. 4.

Wilson Library Bulletin, October, 1990.

World Literature Today, summer, 1995, p. 584.


ONLINE

Voices from the Gaps Web site, http://voices.cla.umn.edu/ (January 10, 2005), "Ntozake Shange."*

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