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Ntozake Shange  

Fearless poet, playwright and Obie Award-winning author has given women and girls of color honest, inspiring visions of themselves — she motivates audiences to find the strength and courage to “walk like a lion”

Ntozake Shange declares herself a poet first and playwright second. She is also a dancer, actor, director, author, lecturer, and black feminist. In 1971, she adopted the name "Ntozake Shange," pronounced En-toe-zok-ee Shan-gay, from Xhosa, a Zulu dialect, which signifies "she who comes into her own things" (Ntozake) and "she who walks like a lion" (Shange). In a 1990 interview with Neal A. Lester, Shange explains, "I'm a firm believer that language and how we use language determines how we act, and how we act then determines our lives and other people's lives. "

Shange was born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey, on October 18, 1948. Her mother Eloise, an educator and social worker, and her father Paul, a sports physician, contributed to the rich intellectual environment surrounding Shange's childhood. Shange recalls as a child the family friends who often frequented their home, names like Dizzy Gillespie, Paul Robeson, Walter White, and W.E.B. Dubois. "I used to sit up on the stairway in the front of the house and watch the people come in and I could listen to the talk going on in the back" (Interview with Brenda Lyons, 1986). During these same years, Shange and her sister attended poetry readings. Even at a young age, she began to analyze and critique the poetry she had heard. At one reading, Shange recalls the poetry of women who had formerly been raised in the South. "We were getting very upset by what, in our ignorance, we saw as their romanticization of Southern living. And I was saying to myself, if it was as wonderful as all that, why in the hell did you all come up here" (Interview with Henry Blackwell)?

Shange also became increasingly aware of the limits placed on Blacks and women in society. In 1956, the Williams family moved to Missouri. Being a "gifted" child, Shange was sent several miles away from home to school in St. Louis to receive special schooling. For the first time, she attended a non-segregated school. She experienced overt racism and was constantly harassed by the other students. . Seeing reality as such at an early age created a sense of displacement for Shange while becoming the motivational force behind her writing, "I started writing because there's an absence of things I was familiar with or that I dreamed about. One of my senses of anger is related to this vacancy - a yearning I had as a teenager. . .and when I get ready to write, I think I'm trying to fill that. . . " (Interview with Brenda Lyons 1986). Shange's goal became to be a part of a collection of books that someone might give to a female child.

In 1966, Shange enrolled in Barnard College in New York. Her years as an undergraduate were marked by many significant events. On a personal level, Shange married and separated from a law student at the age of nineteen. She also performed the first of several suicide attempts - by sticking her head into an oven. In regards to her education, Shange became starved for Black literature. In an interview with Henry Blackwell, Shange summarizes her college education, "For years, I was able to tolerate being chastised and denigrated in American literature and any other kind of literature because that is where we were, and that's how women were regarded. " She graduated with honors in 1970 with a B.A. in American Studies. Deciding that there was no space for an independent woman's voice, Shange moved from New York to California, and attended graduate school at University of Southern California. Here, Shange taught writing and began to associate with poets, teachers, performers, and feminist writers. "My craft was seriously nurtured in California and that probably has some influence on what my writing looks like" (Interview with Henry Blackwell). It was in graduate school where she became 'Ntozake Shange. ' In 1973, she earned her Master's Degree in American Studies.

Shange continued living in California and taught courses in humanities, women's studies, and writing at various colleges. Not only was she writing poetry, Shange and her friends began to perform their poetry, music, and dance in and around San Fransisco. "The poetry of the Black writer on the West Coast clarifies - migrations, our relationship to the soil, to ourselves in space. There is an enormous amount of space in the West, and you do not feel personally impinged upon every time you come out your door, like you do in New York and Chicago" (Blackwell). In addition to teaching, writing, and performing, Shange joined Halifu Osumare's dance company. Here, she met a woman by the name of Paula Moss. They began collaborating on poetry, music, and dance that would become part of Shange's first chorepoem, For colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf: a choreopoem.

In 1975, Shange moved back to New York with Moss. They started performing the chorepoem in Soho Jazz lofts and later in bars in the lower East Side. Soon, a producer by the name of Woodie King Jr. saw one of these performances. With the help of director Oz Scott, Shange's choreopoem was staged at the New Federal Theatre off-Broadway. In 1976 it was moved to Anspacher Public Theatre, and that same year, it was produced on Broadway at the Booth Theatre. It won several awards including an Obie Award and Outer Circle Award in addition to Tony Award nominations in 1977. This marked the beginning of Shange's career.


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