Poet and playwright Ntozake Shange dies at 70

Free Press wire reports | 11/1/2018, 6 a.m.
Playwright, poet and author Ntozake Shange, whose most acclaimed theater piece is the 1975 Tony Award-nominated play “For Colored Girls …
Ntozake Shange


Playwright, poet and author Ntozake Shange, whose most acclaimed theater piece is the 1975 Tony Award-nominated play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” died Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, according to her daughter.

Ms. Shange was 70 and was living in an assisted living facility in Bowie, Md., after suffering a series of strokes in 2004. Her daughter, Savannah Shange, an anthropology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said her mother died in her sleep at the facility.

Her work, “For Colored Girls,” describes the racism, sexism, violence and rape experienced by seven black women and has been influential to generations of progressive thinkers, from #MeToo architect Tarana Burke to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. After learning of Ms. Shange’s death, Ms. Nottage called her “our warrior poet/dramatist.”

“She spoke for, and in fact embodied, the ongoing struggle of black women and girls to live with dignity and respect in the context of systemic racism, sexism and oppression,” Savannah Shange said.

“For Colored Girls” is an interwoven series of poetic monologues set to music — Ms. Shange coined the form a “choreopoem” for it — by African-American women, each identified only by a color that she wears.

Ms. Shange used idiosyncratic punctuation and nonstandard spellings in her work, challenging conventions. One of her characters shouts, “i will raise my voice / & scream & holler / & break things & race the engine / & tell all yr secrets bout yrself to yr face.”

It played some 750 performances on Broadway, only the second play to do so by an African-American woman after “A Raisin in the Sun.”

In 2010, Tyler Perry turned it into a feature film that starred Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Janet Jackson, Kimberly Elise, Whoopi Goldberg, Macy Gray and Phylicia Rashad. It won several NAACP Image Awards, including Outstanding Motion Picture in 2011.

Born Paulette Williams in Trenton, N.J., Ms. Shange graduated from Barnard College and got a master’s degree from the University of Southern California. Her father, Dr. Paul T. Williams, was a surgeon. Her mother, Eloise Owens Williams, was a professor of social work. She later assumed a new Zulu name: Ntozake means “She who comes with her own things” and Shange means “She who walks like a lion.”

“For Colored Girls” opened at the Public Theater in downtown Manhattan, with Ms. Shange, then 27, performing as one of the women. The New York Times reviewer called it “extraordinary and wonderful” and “a very humbling but inspiring thing for a white man to experience.” It earned Ms. Shange an Obie Award and she won a second such award in 1981 for her adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” at the Public Theater.

Ms. Shange’s other 15 plays include “A Photograph: A Study of Cruelty” (1977), “Boogie Woogie Landscapes” (1977), “Spell No. 7” (1979) and “Black and White Two Dimensional Planes” (1979).

Her list of published works includes 19 poetry collections, six novels, five children’s books and three collections of essays. Some of her novels are “Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo” (1982) and “Some Sing, Some Cry,” with her sister, Ifa Bayeza. Her poetry collections include “I Live in Music” (1994) and “The Sweet Breath of Life: A Poetic Narrative of the African-American Family” (2004). She appeared in an episode of “Transparent” and helped narrate the 2002 documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.”

She worked with such black theater companies as the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in San Francisco; the New Freedom Theater in Philadelphia; Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, N.J.; St. Louis Black Rep; Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minn.; and The Ensemble Theatre in Houston, Texas.

Ms. Shange taught at Brown University, Rice University, Villanova University, DePaul University, Prairie View University and Sonoma State University. She also lectured at Howard, Yale and New York universities, among others.

In addition to her daughter and sister, Ms. Shange is survived by another sister, Bisa Williams; a brother, Paul T. Williams Jr.; and a granddaughter, Harriet Shange-Watkins.