Photo by Jeffrey St Mary
Ntozake Shange, the poet, novelist and pioneering playwright whose landmark choreopoem, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf,” helped generations of women of color discover their voices, has died, the Star Tribune has learned.
Shange, 70, had suffered multiple strokes in recent years. But she had been on the mend lately, creating new work, giving readings and being feted for her work.
She died in her sleep Saturday morning in an assisted living facility in Bowie, Md., where she lived.
“Zake was a woman of extravagance and flourish, and she left quickly without suffering,” said Ifa Bayeza, her sister who also is a playwright and theater artist. “It’s a huge loss for the world. I don’t think there’s a day on the planet when there’s not a young woman who discovers herself through the words of my sister.”
“For Colored Girls,” which introduced choreopoem into the dictionary, is an empowering series of interwoven poems on love and loss, joy and pain. They were gathered into a show that opened off-Broadway in 1975, and on Broadway in 1976. It has been produced consistently ever since, including a sterling staging by Penumbra artistic director Sarah Bellamy and her theater founder Lou Bellamy, that just closed at the St. Paul playhouse.
Her passing marks “a major shift in the cosmos,” Sarah Bellamy said Saturday. “Ntozake Shange invited us to marvel at the resiliency and power that women of color harness in order to survive a hostile world. She invited us to practice the ritual of loving ourselves.”
Her father said that because of the marketing of the Broadway production, some people mischaracterized “For Colored Girls” as being anti-male. “Pro-female and anti-male are not the same things,” he said.
Shange wrote more than a dozen other plays, although none achieved the level of success as “For Colored Girls.” A prolific writer and artist, she also wrote novels and books of poetry.
Born Paulette Williams in Trenton, N.J., Shange hailed from an accomplished family. Her father, Paul T. Williams, was a surgeon. Her mother, Eloise Owens Williams, was a professor of social work. In addition to Bayeza, best known for her play, “The Ballad of Emmett Till,” she is survived by sister Bisa Williams, a career diplomat who served as the U.S. ambassador to Niger; and brother Paul T. Williams, Jr., executive director of the board of the Dormitory Authority for the State of New York.
Her survivors also includes daughter, Savannah Shange, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, and grand-daughter Harriet Shange Watkins.
Bayeza recalled that she knew that she wanted to be a writer in kindergarten because of her big sister.
She recalled that she had come home from school thrilled because they were just teaching the other students to write their names and Bayeza, who had been taught by a cousin, already knew how to do that. So she showed it to her, printing out her name in capital letters — big, tall sticks.
She recalled that Shange, who was 7 or 8 at the time, looked at her and said, “’That’s not writing, this is writing.’ And she wrote her name with these beautiful letters that made me delirious,” said Bayeza. “The words looked like they were dancing off the page. And I said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s what I want to do.’ It has such flourish and drama and beauty, all dancing off the page. That’s what she went on to do with her life.”