Shange, Ntozake 1948–
Ntozake Shange 1948-
(Born Paulette Linda Williams; also known as Ntozake Shange) American dramatist, novelist, poet, essayist, and children's writer.
For additional information on Shange's career, see Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1.
Shange is best known for her first dramatic production, the award-winning for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (1975). A unique blend of poetry, music, dance, and drama, the play is often referred to as a "choreopoem," or "staged poetry." In her dramas, novels, and poetry—which are often amalgamations of a variety of literary forms and media—Shange draws heavily upon her experiences as a black female in America to write innovatively and passionately about racial, political, and feminist issues. She is particularly noted for her dramatic representations of African American women, and for her strong opposition to any discrimination—whether it be racial, sexual, or political—against them in American society. She has received mixed critical reaction both to the ways in which she foregrounds the intersection of race and gender oppression in the experiences of African American women, and for her depictions of the relationships between black women and men. While Shange focuses on the pain of their experiences, her characters maintain a sense of triumph over their circumstances, often through discovering their inner strength and in celebrating friendships with other women.
Shange was born in 1948 in Trenton, New Jersey, to Paul T. Williams, an air force surgeon, and Eloise Owens Williams, a psychiatric social worker and educator. The eldest of four children, she spent her childhood with her family in upstate New York and in St. Louis, Missouri. Hers was an intellectually and aurally stimulating childhood: the family traveled to such foreign destinations as Cuba, Haiti, Mexico, and Europe. Shange's mother was an avid reader, sharing with her children the major works of the African American canon, while her father was a drum player who at one time had his own band, loved the rich and varied musical expression of Africa. As a result of their parents' interests, the Williams children came into frequent contact with many of the foremost black intellectuals and musicians of the time, including Dizzy Gillespie, Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, and W. E. B. DuBois. Shange attended Barnard College in New York and graduated with honors in 1970. She received an M.A. in American Studies in 1973 from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. During college she went through a period of depression after separating from her first husband, attempting suicide several times before focusing her rage against society's treatment of black women. In 1971, when she was in graduate school, she changed her name to Ntozake Shange (which in Zulu means "she who comes with her own things / she walks like a lion") as a way of reaffirming her personal strength based on a self-determined identity, and as a means of connecting with her African roots. Throughout her career as a writer, performer, and director, she has taught courses in women's studies, creative writing, drama, and related subjects at colleges and universities across the United States, including the City College of the City University of New York, the University of Houston, the University of Florida, and Villanova University. Among the numerous awards she has received for her work are the 1992 Paul Robeson Achievement Award, the 1993 Living Legend Award from the National Black Theatre Festival, and the Pushcart Prize. In 2004 Shange suffered a stroke, which affected her ability to write.
The controversial and dramatic choreopoem for colored girls is the work which has defined Shange's career and reputation. Nominated for Tony, Emmy, and Grammy Awards in 1977, for colored girls won the Outer Circle Critics Award as well as several Obie Awards. The play, which began as a series of poems that were eventually incorporated into a single dramatic performance, presents a strong feminist statement on behalf of black women. The production is structured as a series of vignettes relayed through the poetic soliloquies, dialogue, stories, and chants of seven black actresses. These vignettes incorporate music, dance, and poetry, as each woman conveys painful experiences such as rape, illegal abortion, violence, and troubled relationships. The message of the play is ultimately hopeful, as Shange's characters conclude that African American women should look to a female god within themselves for strength, and appreciate that the "rainbow" of their own color is powerful enough to sustain them. While also emphasizing the poetic monologue, Spell #7 (1979) has a more conventional narrative than for colored girls, in that the characters interact with one another in the context of a semi-developed storyline. The production's nine characters in a New York bar 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 Obie Award-winning Mother Courage and Her Children (1980) was adapted from the Bertolt Brecht drama. While the original play was set in seventeenth-century Europe, Shange situates her characters in the post-Civil War era in the United States, where African American soldiers are employed to aid in the massacre of Native Americans in the West. Mother Courage supports herself by selling wares to white people, without concern for the moral implications of her actions.
After the production of Mother Courage, Shange began to concentrate on writing novels and poetry. She experimented with the conventions of fiction writing with her first full-length novel, Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo (1982), which was adapted from Shange's novella entitled Sassafrass (1976). Written in a pastiche style that includes recipes, magic spells, poetry, letters, and other written texts, the novel centers on sisters who find different ways to cope with their love relationships. Sassafrass is a weaver who cannot leave Mitch, a musician who abuses drugs and beats her. Cypress, a dancer in feminist productions, struggles against becoming romantically involved. Indigo, the youngest sister, retreats into her imagination, befriending her childhood dolls, seeing only the poetry and magic of the world. The novel Betsey Brown (1985) focuses on a middle-class adolescent girl in St. Louis in the late 1950s, when American schools were first integrated. Betsey, the main character, is bussed to a predominantly white school, where she is confronted for the first time with racial difference.
In The Love Space Demands, a choreopoem published in 1991, Shange returned to the blend of music, dance, poetry, and drama that characterized for colored girls. The volume includes poems on celibacy and sexuality, on black women's sense of abandonment by black men, on a crack-addicted mother who sells her daughter's virginity for a hit, and a pregnant woman who swallows cocaine, destroying her unborn child, to protect her man from arrest. Shange's 1994 novel, Liliane, again finds the author exploring the issues of race and gender in contemporary America. In the work, Liliane Lincoln undergoes psychoanalysis in an attempt to better understand the events of her life, during which she forms brief, sexual relationships with men, mourns the deaths of childhood friends, and travels in pursuit of artistic inspiration and wisdom. Shange's poetry, including Nappy Edges (1978), Some Men (1981), A Daughter's Geography (1983), and Ridin' the Moon in Texas (1987), share with her plays and novels a concern with the experiences of African American women and a nontraditional use of language which captures the rhythms of Black English speech patterns. In the 2004 collection The Sweet Breath of Life, Shange combined poetry with photographs by the Kamoinge Workshop (a group of African American photographers) in an homage to The Sweet Flypaper of Life, which was published in 1955 by poet Langston Hughes and photographer Roy DeCarava. Beginning in the 1990s Shange expanded her oeuvre to include children's books. Among these are Float Like a Butterfly (2002), about boxer Muhammad Ali; Daddy Says (2003); Ellington Was Not a Street (2003); and Whitewash (1997), about a young African American girl who is traumatized when a gang attacks her and her brother on their way home from school and spray-paints her face white.
Discussion of for colored girls has revolved around the play's unique theatrical form of the "choreopoem," its use of Black English, and the politics of race and gender which it expresses. Many reviewers have celebrated the play's innovative form, which defies the traditional, linear act/scene structure, and have praised its theatricality, linguistic style, and representation of African American experience. Other commentators, however, have found the production offensive, calling the playwright racist based in part on her unsavory depictions of black men, who are viewed as obstacles to the social and spiritual freedom of black women. Critical judgment of her work as a whole has focused in part on Shange's innovative linguistic style. Many reviewers have admired the lyrical quality of her dialogue, but others have found the inventive language to be an impediment, especially for readers of Shange's poetry and novels, who encounter spelling variations, irregular punctuation, and lowercase letters. Many other observers have emphasized the musicality of her dramas, suggesting that Shange incorporates African-based nonverbal actions like dance, song, poetry, and ritual in order to preserve and maintain ties to the black community's African culture and heritage. Her poetry, too, has been compared to jazz in such elements as its improvisation of repeated refrains and themes and Shange's use of linguistic syncopation. Her focus on the experience of black women in particular is a theme that runs through much critical commentary. In general, she is applauded for offering realistic and passionate renderings of female African Americans, depicting their imperfections as well as their strengths. She is applauded for her attempts to tear down stereotypes that devalue and diminish them, and for offering works that affirm their significance and worth.
for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf: A Choreopoem (drama) 1975
Sassafrass (novella) 1976
Natural Disasters and Other Festive Occasions (poetry and prose) 1977
A Photograph: A Still Life with Shadows / A Photograph: A Study of Cruelty (drama) 1977; revised as A Photograph: Lovers-in-Motion 1979
Nappy Edges (poetry) 1978
Boogie Woogie Landscapes (drama) 1979; revised as Black and White Two-Dimensional Planes 1979
Spell #7: A Geechee Quick Magic Trance Manual (drama) 1979
Mother Courage and Her Children [adapted; from the drama Mother Courage and Her Children, by Bertolt Brecht] (drama) 1980
Some Men (poetry) 1981
Three Pieces: Spell #7; A Photograph: Lovers-in-Motion; Boogie Woogie Landscapes (dramas) 1981
Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo (novel) 1982
A Daughter's Geography (poetry) 1983
From Okra to Greens: Poems (poetry) 1984
See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays and Accounts (essays) 1984
Betsey Brown: A Novel (novel) 1985
Ridin' the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings (poetry) 1987
Three Views of Mt. Fuji (drama) 1987
Betsey Brown: A Rhythm and Blues Musical [with Emily Mann] (play) 1989
The Love Space Demands: A Continuing Saga (poetry) 1991
I Live in Music (poetry) 1994
Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter (novel) 1994
Whitewash (for children) 1997
If I Can Cook You Know God Can (essays) 1998
The Beacon Best of 1999: Creative Writing by Women and Men of All Colors [editor] (poetry, short stories, and essays) 1999
Float Like a Butterfly: Muhammad Ali, the Man Who Could Float Like a Butterfly and Sting Like a Bee (for children) 2002
Daddy Says (for children) 2003
Ellington Was Not a Street (for children) 2003
The Sweet Breath of Life: A Poetic Narrative of the African-American Family (poetry) 2004
Wild Flowers [with David Murray] (poetry) 2006
Philip U. Effiong (essay date 1994)
SOURCE: Effiong, Philip U. "The Subliminal to the Real: Musical Regeneration in Ntozake Shange's Boogie Woogie Landscapes." Theatre Studies 39 (1994): 33-43.
[In the following essay, Effiong discusses music, dance, and ritual as significant modes of African nonverbal expression, and examines how these art forms function as instruments of healing and spiritual redemption in Boogie Woogie Landscapes.]
The basis for Ntozake Shange's poetic style—her choreopoem—is apparent in her insistence that Black writers revive "the most revealing moments from lives spent in nonverbal activity," since it is through nonverbal activity—music, song, dance/movement, ritual—that "black people have conquered their environments / or at least their pain."1 To preserve this ceremonial ideal, Shange creates a liberated stage space in which theatrical styles and themes are explored, overcoming the limitations of dialogue and realism. She relies on indigenous folklore by applying ritual and ceremony—"the way we worship"—to her drama.2 Separating these components would deny African-Americans a theatrical heritage emphasizing collective participation, celebration, and action-inducing genres. To ignore them, Shange observes, would be to sell "ourselves & our legacy quite cheaply / since we are trying to make our primary statements with somebody else's life / & somebody else's idea of a perfect play."3
Shange recommends revising stereotypes of Blacks as singers and dancers, rather than discarding them. As Margaret Wilkerson has noted, African music, with "its complex, phonetic reproduction of words and its polyphonic and contrapuntal rhythmic structures," offers creative material for African-American dramatists seeking "new ways of conceptualizing music as an element of drama."4 Shange seems to share this view as well as that of Barbara Ann Teer who believes that, as powerful religious forces, music and dance explicate Black people's spiritual and primal well-being.5
The presence of dance, song, music, poetry, and ceremony in Shange's work dramatizes a continuity of culture from Africa to Black America, citing Africa as a distant but "accessible" homeland and identity source. Assessing Shange's technique, Elizabeth Brown-Guillory writes: "not only did she popularize the choreopoem, but she brought to the American theater an art that is undeniably African."6 Shange's drama is committed "to recuperating marginalized folk traditions of ‘New World’ Africans and of women in general."7 Her choreopoem sustains the vibrant theatrical form that she prescribes and initiates a revolutionary phase in the African-American quest for a functional theatre.
In redesigning a non-linear dramatic pattern that distorts an oppressive language and dialogue tradition, Shange obscures the progression of action and character. Her adherence to non-linearity is rooted in her belief that drama can relay diverse, though related, themes through several voices and individual representations. In searching for new theatrical forms, Shange creates a musical quality offering its audience a "reverie" of the type commonly relayed during a musical performance.8 Shange suggests:
we demolish the notion of straight theater for a decade or so, refuse to allow playwrights to work without dancers and musicians / ‘coon’ shows were somebody else's idea / we have integrated the notion that drama must be words / with no music & no dance / cuz that wd take away the seriousness of the event / cuz we all remember too well / the chuckles & scoffs at the notion that all niggers cd sing & dance / & most of us can sing & dance / … this is a cultural reality. this is why i find the most inspiring theater among us to be in the realms of music & dance.9
Music and dance in Shange's drama function as in traditional African performance. Apart from retaining ties with Africa, dance, like music, serves as a cathartic and freeing agent—a defense mechanism. Recalling her dance training in San Francisco, Shange claims:
with dance I discovered my body more intimately than I had imagined possible. With the acceptance of the ethnicity of my tights & backside, came a clearer understanding of my voice as a woman & as a poet. The freedom to move in space … insisted that everything African, everything halfway colloquial, a grimace, a strut, an arched back over a yawn, waz mine.10
To fully explore Black nonverbal resources, Shange endorses a theatre of "more than verbal communication," one that appeals to all the physical senses and celebrates the "interdisciplinary culture" of Black Americans.11 Reconstructing standard English usage, Shange uses language to bolster her theatrical liberty. She does not use a Black English or idiom comparable to Ebonics.12 Instead, she applies a colloquial, metaphoric, rhythmic style that complements the musicality of her drama. Shange's English is not "Black," it is a personal construct avouching her own cultural, dramatic, and feminist self. She liberates herself from the language of her oppressor. After the production of Spell #7 in 1979, Shange responded to a New York reviewer who claimed that she had done the English language much damage:
the man who thought i wrote with intentions of outdoing the white man in the acrobatic distortions of english waz absolutely correct. i cant count the number of times i have viscerally wanted to attack deform n maim the language that i waz taught to hate myself in … being an afro-american writer is something to be self-conscious abt / & yes / … i haveta fix my tool to my needs / … so that the malignancies / fall away / leaving us space to literally create our own image.13
Sandra Richards notes how the women of Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf can "bypass through music and dance, the limitations of social and human existence."14 Music, movement and song "convey layers of sensate information lying beyond or outside linguistic, cerebral dimensions of the brain."15 Playwrights like Shange "find in music a second language that gives expression to profound anguish and joy of their vision and experience … finding in the dissonant tones of black music a powerful expressive mode."16 Not always utilitarian, Shange's music punctuates action with life, fashioning a total theatre that appeals to all the senses, stimulating audience involvement.
BOOGIE WOOGIE LANDSCAPES17
Structured on the boogie-woogie—a piano-playing method evolving from jazz and blues, and sometimes described as "up-tempo" blues18—Shange's boogie woogie landscapes (1979) is an expressionistic and fantasy representation filtered through the random thoughts, reveries, visions, hopes, "combat breath," internal conflicts and memories of the play's single "real" character, layla. The notion of boogie-woogie as speeded-up blues reflects the play's rendition of the central character's thought process in quick succession. Dealing with correlating themes in different parts of landscapes, Shange deviates from the traditional beginning, middle, and end arrangement, presenting her subject matter via the spontaneous thought process of the boogie-woogie. Her approach foregrounds random unresolved themes of color, racism, sexism, and ignorance, all of which filter through layla's mental state. Hope is eventually, but subtly, foreseen in the efficacy of music.
An adaptation of the choreopoem, landscapes resembles colored girls in its use of unreal, symbolic characters;19 de-emphasis on dialogue; flashbacks; episodic renditions; and portrayal of themes and subthemes in imagistic monologues. As in colored girls, major themes center around Blacks, especially Black women and girls. Unlike colored girls, however, "characters" here are not only women; there are men who interact with women, and there are occasional instances of actual dialogue. So, landscapes is not a choreopoem in the original sense displayed in colored girls. This slight shift in form shows a gradual, though not strictly chronological, progression from the choreopoem to other forms, creating space to explore varied themes and skills.
While landscapes is technically set in layla's bedroom, the real "landscape" lies within her head. This mental process, both conscious and unconscious, grows out of a hostile racist and sexist setting and is relayed in quick, stream-of-consciousness succession, suggesting speed and kinesis. The caustic revelations handed out by layla are surprisingly direct. As Shange notes, the voices of layla's "unconsciousness" are "unspeakable realities / for no self-respecting afro-american girl wd reveal so much of herself of her own will / there is too much anger to handle assuredly / too much pain to keep on truckin / less ya bury it."20
Shange's unique structure shocks her reader / audience into appraising the consequences of racial abuse and the macabre results of violating women. Layla is conditioned by a racist discourse which sees America in terms of two main colors, denying her the opportunity to recognize and pursue numerous colors—the vast resources that comprise human existence. Addressing this prob- lem, night-life companion (n.l.c.) #2 points out that "she never thought people places or ideas were anything / but black & white."21 N.l.c. #1 further explains the insecurities, fears, and restraint of this color dilemma in layla's life: "her most serious problem is how / to stop walking on this road the / color of pitch / … she is trapped in black & white / without shadows / she cannot lean against anything / the earth has no depth because she cannot hold it" (114). Layla's life is empty and without substance. Although she attempts to go beyond black and white, she remains obsessed with the limitations of color and the dissonance that comes with this obsession. She either "howls / for anything red" or she "wd have a fierce yellow" (115). A restrictive color-conscious life generates self-hatred in layla who periodically detests the fact that she is Black. Her phobia for her Black self is exhibited in her constant belief that she stains anything she touches "with grime" and "a furrow of slate fingerprints" with which "she made things black" (115). N.l.c. #6 observes: "she didnt want anything as black as the palms of her hands to touch her" (115).
Layla's attempts at escaping her insecurities are relayed through flashback and mime by the n.l.c.s. While her goals are worthwhile, they are subsumed in her passion for colors. In her desire to learn more, she carries out a bizarre ritual in which she eats books, gothic novels, and "the black & white pages" of newspapers, remaining confined to her perceptions of black and white (116). While "reading" does not provide escape from layla's color-stifled life, she finds new hope in a spiritual realm when she discovers Jesus. Through Christ she seems to find a huge range of unexplored "dimensions / & hope, … horizons … different dawns" (117). For once, layla recognizes and relates to a variety of colors, accepting herself without fear and with excitement: "she studied the legs & arms of herself / the hair & lips of herself / before the burst of spirit let her hold herself" (116-7).
But layla's immersion in religion is a bland exercise devoid of profound liturgic healing. For one, she cannot escape her entrapment in color concepts. Such experimentation with "jesus" fails to erase the racist and sexist mutilations on her psyche or the psyches of her degenerate, loveless family. Her gnarled rite-of-passage away from fulfillment evolves into a nightmarish desire to save her family and Black people from the shackles of color which repress her. The n.l.c.s. express this dilemma when they recall a violent racist attack on layla's brothers and sisters. At this point, the optimistic color images associated with layla's religious gambit revert to discordant images, expunging any possibility for religious growth. Once again she becomes the black-staining organism devoid of racial confidence. Increasingly captivated by images of blood—"scarlet" and "red"—she desperately attempts to rescue the "little black things" who are "charred" by "scrawny cheap white men" (118). The abuse and subsequent reduction of layla's siblings to a less-than-human state is reiterated in her allusion to them as "little black things." This racist attack merges the discordant images of color with the dehumanizing effects of hate on the individual and the family. As the n.l.c.s reenact the White supremacist chant—"niggahs / niggahs / go home / go home / niggahs!" (118)—the ultimate feeling of alienation is aroused, even as layla tries in vain to reassure her brothers and sisters. Again, colors evoke the permeating disenchantment. While orange and yellow are metaphors for hope, such optimism is eclipsed by more volatile and bloody images elicited by red and scarlet which comprise "a cacophony of colors" (119).
A deeper appraisal of layla's arduous and degenerate family life occurs in a flashback acted out by n.l.c.s #1, #2, and #3. Within the family, layla is introduced to racism, police harrassment, and the division of the world into colored and white. The task of raising children is left in the hands of a tiring, hostile grandma because mommy and daddy are rarely present; "mommy" finally leaves the madhouse because she cannot cope with her mischevious children and the several maids hired to stabilize her family. Within this labyrinth, layla learns to steal and peek at Regina, a maid, when she has sex with Roscoe. She learns to accept another maid, Carrie, as her role model since her own parents fail to offer her the incentive she desperately needs. She is crushed, therefore, when Carrie goes to jail for cutting someone. Memories of past family life come to this vehement halt, fitting well into the abrasive climate of the drama.
The gruesome impact of a life of racial entrapment, family disintegration, and self-hate induces a chain reaction where the simple ability to appreciate love is lost even while it is coveted. In a brief drama where n.l.c. #4 expresses love toward layla, using imagery-rich poetry to eulogize her beauty, layla's responses exemplify the loss of human affection. She incessantly reminds n.l.c. #4 that her humanity is sucked dry by race, color, violence, and sexual tensions. Her depraved history is a heavy load that she cannot shed: "i am sometimes naked / but mostly i wear my past / the pinafores & white socks that shamed me" (122). Subsumed within this debauched, bloody epoch, layla grows to accept her background as normal: "i sleep more easily now / my love in that scarlet cup" (122).
While, on one level, layla's rejection of n.l.c. #4's advances implies her self-denial of basic human traits, Shange extols this denial as a vital step toward resisting sexual molestation. Incensed by n.l.c. #4's love overtures, two women, n.l.c. #1 and n.l.c. #3, approach layla with a range of aggressive proposals for deterring rapists, proposals already being executed in "cuba where rape is treason" (123).
More poignant attention is paid to the plight of women—girls in particular—when issues of infibulation, clitorectomy, forced marriage, polygamy and incest are raised. Shange expands her theme to include Black women and women / girls from a variety of backgrounds. Her language is straightforward and coarse:
societies usedta throw us away / or sell us / or play with our vaginas / cuz that's all girls were good for. at least women cd carry things & cook / … i wish it waz gd to be born a girl everywhere / then i wd know for sure that no one wd be infibulated / … infibulation is sewing our vaginas up with cat-gut or weeds or nylon thread to insure our virginity … we've been excised. had our labia removed with glass or scissors … we've lost our clitoris because our pleasure is profane & the presence of our naturally evolved clitoris wd disrupt the very unnatural dynamic of polygamy … we're sewn-up / cut-up / pared down & sore if not dead / & oozing pus / … & STILL … afraid to walk the streets or stay home at night.
Using n.l.c. #3, Shange's sermon on the mental, physical, and social agony informing female sexual desecration voices a ritual of terror and distress in which girls are ultimate losers. Their defilement is compounded by their susceptibility to family estrangement, death, and blame. More disconcerting is the truth that "attackers / molesters & rapists … are proliferating at a rapid rate" and, on too many occasions, they "like raping & molesting their family members better than a girl-child they don't know yet" (136).
Female victimization persists in the ritual climb from girl to woman. In a scene where n.l.c. #3, as layla, is depicted as having undergone the passage from girl to wife, images of death and decay explicate her condition. Her husband, n.l.c. #4, describes their children as "ghost children … swallowed / like placenta / … when you rear yr young in dark closets" (136). The family is in a wretched state and layla, now bereft of her father, mother, and sisters, bears the majority of its burden, laboring to attend to her husband and children's needs. n.l.c. #4 admits:
like a stray cat she waited on me … she leaned / over steaming laundry / the baby the father / & the graves … she waited / her hair so heavy / her head hung down to fondle the baby / warm the baby.
Shange merges racism and sexism as two variations of a single phenomenon. In concentrating on gender matters, she momentarily drops her manipulation of color symbolism, refocusing on the general decay in human values. Events filtering through layla's consciousness and unconsciousness expand beyond African-American society to embrace humanity. The world is portrayed as hypocritical, pretentious, and spiritually-deficient. The daily "elegance" that we witness and appreciate is a shadow of the real depreciation: "elegant hoodlums / elegant intellectuals / … elegant derelicts / elegant surgeons / elegant trash. elegant priests / elegant dieticians / elegant nymphomaniacs / … elegance. elegance. elegance" (140).
In her final chant, layla's insightful alliance with the musicians and n.l.c.s provokes her awareness of a pervasive desire for harmony. She discerns the human tendency to engage in "struggle" and "merge in our eccentricity / this penchant for the right to live" (141). At the end of landscapes layla's trust is embedded in the attainment of a spiritual realm represented by music. Dance and music are restorative instruments of hope, strength, and the communication of key moods and tensions. Out of the six n.l.c.s four are required to sing, move and / or dance well. Layla also entertains "a trio of musicians … who reflect her consciousness … [and who] side with the night-life interlopers, attempting to refine layla's perceptions of herself and her past," rather than just entertaining her (113). The musicians and n.l.c.s suggest the presence of spirits and this fantasy dynamic evolves into concrete reality as they constantly move around and "thru the walls" of layla's bedroom (113). In this ritualized arena, the spiritual and natural worlds merge.
Music pervades the drama as a theatrical and uplifting device; it reclaims a sacred mode, healing and transcending the mundane world. At the beginning of landscapes, layla returns from a disco accompanied by her background theme song. She hints at music as a redeeming symbol:
dontcha wanna be music / … dontcha wanna
be daybreak & ease into a fog / a cosmic event like
sound / & rain
. . . . .
like when a woman can walk down gold street
feeling like she's moved to atlantis …
it's what we call a marin intrusion
interlopin visions & deities findin the way home
cuz we dont recognize what's sacred anymore
The refrain of "music," "fog," "cosmic event," and "rain" resurfaces throughout the play. Music is repeatedly alluded to as a source for deliverance, the only factor in the play that comes close to regaining a lost spirituality: "music offers solace / offers some kinda way to reach out / to ring bells on gold street / … to be free / in truth / in silence" (120).
To heighten the role of music as a participatory ceremony for change, the n.l.c.s take part in an orgiastic fanfare during which they completely immerse themselves in music as they dance, sing selected songs, chart the development of musical forms from "neo-afrikan" to "rock n roll," and mark the significance of artists like Sun-Ra and Ike Turner (126-9). The ceremony substantiates the sacred role of music, a role that dogmatic religion does not accomplish: "shall i go to jonestown or the disco? / if jesus wont fix it / the deejay will" (138). Shange implies that, perhaps, mind and body will find salvation in the blending of music and the divine. As n.l.c. #1 puts it: "at the disco we shout the praises of the almighty / i wrap my arms around you till the end" (139). On their own, music and the divine are deficient. At the disco there is the potential to "dance myself to death" while isolated religion becomes little more than a series of downcast, barren screams: "shout hallelujah / praise the lord / shout hallelujah / praise the lord" (140). Rather than completely discredit Christianity, Shange underscores the integral need to reconstruct its structure by applying the recuperative role of music so that the religion addresses and appeals to the sensibilities and sociopolitical needs of Black people.
Music is not only a symbol, it is a pathway to the type of ceremonial drama that Shange endorses. This drama will shun trivialities and advance viable themes, just as Shange calls for the news media to eschew petty information and focus on issues like Zimbabwean independence, the isolation of White South Africans, and the education of African-American children (125-6). Music does not provide total regeneration in landscapes, but it remains the cardinal metaphor for ritual growth and freedom, the type of freedom Shange anticipates for all girls:
right now being born a girl is to be born threatened; i want being born a girl to be a cause for celebration / cause for protection & nourishment of our birthright / … we pay for being born girls / but we owe no one anything / not our labia, not our clitoris, not our lives. we are born girls to live to be women who live our own lives / to live our lives. to have / our lives / to live.
Shange is a gifted dramatic poet whose feminist rhetoric blends with her entrancing musical poetry to mold a fascinating style and powerful vision. She harmonizes music, dance, poetry, and movement to express her views on the effects of racism, sexism, poverty, and spiritual decay on women, Blacks, relationships, art, and life's energies. Shange is pivotal to a growing socioartistic trend in which women of color "assert their very presence … become warriors raging against their own invisibility."22
Shange makes pronounced contributions to the Black Aesthetic and its efforts to break down conventional walls. Sandra Richards observes that Shange's deviation from conventional realistic styles is influenced, in part, by Artaud's "Theatre of Cruelty" and Baraka's "Black Revolutionary Theatre." Like both artists, Shange exhibits "a locus for emotionally charged, eruptive forces which assault social complacency to expose victims who, nevertheless, contain within themselves seeds of their own regeneration."23 The religio-ritualistic role of music is germane to the attainment of this "emotional charge."
Music, dance/movement, and song are used profoundly "as spirit-forces … [which] amplify, contradict, or reaffirm the spoken word."24 Such African-based nonverbal tools ritualize Shange's drama and guide her ritual participants—both players and observers—to new insights. This ritual approach to Black drama, a concept promoted in the 1960s, borrows and reapplies the sacred, spiritual, and communal significance of traditional African performance in a new setting. The process harmonizes with E. T. Kirby's description of indigenous African dramatic ritual as "abstract or symbolic actions arranged in a pattern and progression that approaches closer to that which is fundamentally ritual as it becomes more highly controlled and precise in execution."25 Shange equally displays a penchant for discarding concepts of time and space as she conveys random and fragmented, yet controlled and coherent thoughts.
Moments of possession are attained as Shange's themes, language, visual and musical effects arrest the senses of her audiences, startling them into consciousness. This overall ritual impact is sustained in the incantatory and telegraphic properties of her intense musical poetry, confirming Jane Splawn's point that poetry contributes to "a more ritualistic effect than is achieved through the use of naturalistic/realistic dialogue."26 While Shange confronts critical themes, she also mourns the loss of a strong, indigenous, religious culture which her theatre strives to recover.
1. Ntozake Shange, "Unrecovered Losses / Black Theatre Traditions," The Black Scholar 10 (July-August 1979): 7-9.
2. Ntozake Shange, Interview, In the Memory and Spirit of Frances, Zora, and Lorraine: Essays and Interviews on Black Women Writing, ed. Juliette Bowles (Howard, Washington D.C.: Institute for the Arts and the Humanities, 1979) 24.
3. Shange, "Unrecovered Losses," 8.
4. Margaret Wilkerson, "Music as Metaphor: New Plays of Black Women" in Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women's Theatre, ed. Lynda Hart (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989) 62.
5. Barbara Ann Teer, Interview, Blacklines 2 (Spring 1973): 25.
6. Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988) 41.
7. Sandra Richards, "Under the ‘Trickster's’ Sign: Towards a Reading of Ntozake Shange and Femi Osofisan" in Critical Theory and Performance, ed. Janelle Reinelt and Joseph Roach (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992) 68.
8. Shange, Memory and Spirit, 23.
9. Shange, "Unrecovered Losses," 8.
10. Shange, Preface, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (New York: Macmillan, 1975) xv-xvi.
11. Shange, "Unrecovered Losses," 8.
12. Ebonics is a combination of "ebony" and "phonics" or "Black Sounds." Popularized in the 1970s, Ebonics embraces the verbal, nonverbal, and gestural communicative patterns systematically employed by African-Americans.
13. Ntozake Shange, Foreword, Three Pieces (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981) xii.
14. Sandra L. Richards, "Conflicting Impulses in the Plays of Ntozake Shange," Black American Literature Forum 17 (Summer 1983): 73.
15. Richards, "Conflicting Impulses," 76.
16. Wilkerson, 62.
17. Capitalization of titles and character names are consistent with those in Shange's published versions of her work.
18. Ortiz M. Walton, Music: Black, White and Blue (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1972) 31.
19. Layla is "attended" by six night-life companions (n.l.c.'s)—three women and three men—who represent her dream memories.
20. Shange, Three Pieces, xiv.
21. Ntozake Shange, boogie woogie landscapes (1979) in Three Pieces (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981) 114. All subsequent references are to this edition.
22. Mary K. DeShazer, "Rejecting Necrophilia: Ntozake Shange and the Warrior Re-Visioned" in Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women's Theatre, ed. Lynda Hart (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989) 87.
23. Richards, "Conflicting Impulses," 76.
24. Richards, "Conflicting Impulses," 76.
25. E. T. Kirby, "Indigenous African Theatre," The Drama Review 18 (December 1974): 24.
Josephine Lee (review date December 1999)
SOURCE: Lee, Josephine. "Performance Review: for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf." Theatre Journal 51, no. 4 (December 1999): 455-56.
[In this review of the June 1999 Penumbra Theatre Company production of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, Lee offers a mixed assessment of the "multiracial" casting of the seven female characters, which included Asian Americans, African Americans, and one Latina actress.]
By the time Ntozake Shange's Obie-winning for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf received national acclaim, in productions first at the Public Theater and then the Booth Theater on Broadway in 1976, its seven women characters were all played by African American actresses. But Shange described "the energy & part of the style that nurtured for colored girls " as inspired by, among other things, the multiracial feminist writing collectives in San Francisco during the early 1970s [Shange, for colored girls New York: Scribner, 1977), p. x]. Penumbra Theatre Company's production of for colored girls took these roots to heart, choosing three African Americans, two Asian Americans, and one Latina to sing different variations on "a black girl's song." By choosing a multiracial cast, director Kym Moore put a different spin on the terms of being "colored," opening up Shange's lyrical choreopoems to suggest their common terms of oppression, poverty, and racism, and showing that "bein' alive and bein' a woman and bein' colored is a metaphysical dilemma."
To its great credit, the production did not assign its parts indiscriminately; this perhaps might be better termed "color-sensitive" than "color-blind" casting. For the most part, the specific "color" of the actress merged with the characterization, adding complexity to a specific role rather than disguising the realities of race. African American actresses Aimee Bryant and Sharon Cage respectively performed rhapsodic reminiscences of sexual initiation on "graduation nite" in a New Jersey factory town and the story of a childhood adoration of Toussaint L'Overture. The poem "somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff," received a dynamic performance by Signe Harriday in the style of a black sermon. In one of the play's most interesting moments two Asian American actresses, Sun Mee Chomet and Jeany Park, enacted Shange's depiction of "the passion flower of southwest los angeles." Their casting transformed the story of a predatory woman who wears "orange butterflies & aqua sequins" to lure her male conquests into a more specific commentary on the exotic and sexualized stereotypes of the "Oriental" woman.
However, at times this choice of multiracial casting fell flat or became disorienting. Shange's choreopoem takes its force not only from the beauty of its poetry, music, and dance but also from its creation of an extraordinary sense of intimacy with its characters. This delicate familiarity rests in part on the assumption that only particular bodies are privy to certain experiences and can speak these lives truthfully. Occasionally, the production reminded us how difficult it is to translate specific and individual embodiments across the lines of racial and cultural difference: in moments, for instance, when an Asian American actress described her family as "just reglar niggahs with hints of spanish" or when actresses failed to render the rhythms of Shange's poetry without lapsing into patently artificial accents.
Other inconsistencies with the production were the fault of specific movement and design choices rather than casting. Sharon Cage's powerful rendition of "abortion cycle #1" was limited by trapping her in a large blue hemisphere (a multi-purpose receptacle also used in a number of other scenes), which reduced her body language to awkward and restricted pantomime. In the "latent rapists" sequence, the characters delivered their lines as if speaking at a tea party; again, an overly stylized effect ruined the power of Shange's disturbing poetry, rendering the confidential testimonial of "bein' betrayed by men who know us" too alienating. Movement and a use of crude gestural mimicry unfortunately became equally distracting in the "sechita" sequence. And the ending chorale's use of a circular translucent scrim that rose around the actresses became a gratuitous special effect.
At the same time, these momentary lapses did not interfere with a moving and honest set of performances, particularly in the second half. The best of these again reminded us of the play's roots in "an articulated female heritage & imperative" [Shange, xi]. Although the play does feature memorable diatribes against male abusers and oppressors, it idealizes women's relationships with other women in an equally compelling way. This note of colored feminist solidarity was sounded repeatedly through the production. Cast members murmured constant words of support for one another's stories. When the characters mourned "i usedta live in the world / then i moved to HARLEM," an image of "women hangin outta windows / like ol silk stockings" was accompanied by a smile rather than a pang of grief. And in the poem "pyramid," which describes the desire felt by three friends for one faithless man, the poem concluded with the three women, played by Jeany Park, Sharon Cage, and Julie Estrada, consoling one another. Momentarily, they froze in a tableaux with heads resting on one another's laps, a vision of "love like sisters."
Some of the production's most effective moments occurred towards the play's end. The ensemble's performance of "no more love poems" exemplified the force that Shange's melding of dance and poetry might have. By the time each member of the ensemble intoned that her love was too beautiful / sanctified / magic / Saturday nite / complicated / music "to have thrown back on my face," the entire theater beat to the rhythm of their words and feet. Likewise, the final harrowing solo, "a night with beau willie brown," received a heartbreakingly vivid performance by Sun Mee Chomet that left spectators in stunned silence. Chomet's vocal and physical expressiveness—demonstrating both great control and wild painful abandon—got to the heart of this story of brutal degradation and tragedy. This cathartic moment was followed by the final "laying on of hands," that ended the play on a more optimistic note of self-discovery: "i found god in myself / & i loved her / i loved her fiercely."
The Penumbra production gave a new face to Shange's first work for theatre, but preserved the vigor, intensity, and vitality that distinguished this groundbreaking piece. The enduring beauty and power of Shange's artistic imagination was not all we took away from this production of the play. The stories of hardship, emotion, endurance, and hunger for self revived by these seven colored women still very much speak to the unfortunate realities of today.
Carol Marsh-Lockett (essay date 1999)
SOURCE: Marsh-Lockett, Carol. "A Woman's Art; A Woman's Craft: The Self in Ntozake Shange's Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo." In Arms Akimbo: Africana Women in Contemporary Literature, edited by Janice Lee Liddell and Yakini Belinda Kemp, pp. 46-57. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.
[In the essay below, Marsh-Lockett explores how Shange connected music, weaving, and dance with the exploration of African American female identity in the novel Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo.]
"If Black women don't say who they are, other people will and say it badly for them."
In the last lines of her choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, Ntozake Shange's characters declare the ultimate affirmation of their personhood: "i found god in myself / & i loved her / i loved her fiercely" (63). Such a potent utterance posits a viable solution to the problematic spiritual and psychological existence of African American women who have been forced to confront the vicissitudes of life in America and their particularly hostile implications for African American women from the seventeenth century to the present. Marginalized, therefore, by the triple hazard of gender, race, and class, the African American woman has continually been forced to define herself, to struggle against the stereotypes of mammy, matriarch, and jezebel to name herself and her place in society—indeed, the universe.
Ntozake Shange is one of several African American artists and intellectuals who have deconstructed the stereotypes. Confronting the inherent contradiction between the ideologies of womanhood and the devalued status of African American women, she has created works ultimately undergirded by a troubling and painful realization that in spite of the western patriarchal myth that women are supposed to be on a pedestal, African American women, left to the devices of larger society, are mistreated and assigned, as Zora Neale Hurston has written, the status of mules. She has, however, like the earliest of African American literary foremothers, continued in the tradition of countering the negative impact of life in America by developing or defining an African American female self—one that is not constricted by the influence and dictates of a white male power structure or its shadow, African American male prescriptions and assumptions. Thus, by defining and describing in her own terms an African American female experience and identity, Shange, who claimed her own power and personhood by renaming herself from Paulette Williams, suggests through her art that the African American woman derives her power through loving and claiming the divine in herself and expressing herself in her own terms. Shange's choice of the Zulu names—Ntozake ("she who comes with her own things") and Shange ("she who walks like a lion")—attests to her embracing and affirming her own power. More significantly, however, her name change and general aesthetic herald an evolution in the empowerment of African American women writers from the nineteenth century, when the polemic of the novel sought to appeal to the moral sense of white readers, to the current trend in the late twentieth century when African American women's novels address the African American community and a large African American female readership. For, like most contemporary African American female writers, Shange renders a distinct African American female self in all of its idealized and flawed dimensions.
Shange's Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo is an example of an African American female text that identifies as its locus of power an African American sisterhood rather than white readers. Centered on a family of Charlestonian women, the novel is a verbal mosaic and a study in lyricism that celebrates womanhood, life, and art. As Barbara Christian observes, Shange "consciously uses a potpourri of forms primarily associated with women: recipes, potions, letters, as well as poetry and dance rhythms, to construct her novel" (185). In addition, she laces the novel with Afrocentric motifs and incorporates lush, powerful, and utilitarian vegetation imagery (sassafras, cypress, and indigo) in naming her major characters and in so doing shapes reader expectations of the strength, rootedness, and value of African American womanhood.
The novel has, moreover, a middle-class focus. The omniscient narrative voice is middle class and would seem to reflect cadences of Shange's own Paulette Williams background. Shange has, therefore, been able to easily portray the artistic and middle-class orientation of Hilda Effania and her three daughters as they discover themselves, define their womanhood, and work through the dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship. Further, the work is middle class in that it subordinates working class concerns to the artistic experience and at points in the text approaches but never embraces art for its own sake. But in so doing, the novel examines the quality of African American women's lives in the face of racism and sexism. For throughout the novel, despite their heightened spirituality and artistic sensibilities, the Effania women encounter instances of racism and sexism. Nevertheless, we can contrast the vivid portrayal of proletariat issues raised in much of African American literature, such as Richard Wright's Native Son or Ann Petry's The Street. A great achievement in the novel, then, is Shange's ultimate displacement of the European notion of art for art's sake with the traditional African perception of art's serving a functional and spiritual purpose in people's (here, Black women's) lives.
The artistic expression of the middle-class ethos comes through a triple plot structure in which there are three centrally linked stories, each exploring a sister's voyage into self-discovery through the medium of art. The three plots, in turn, are linked through the return structure of the mother-daughter relationship that is reminiscent of the pattern described by Myer Abrams in Natural Supernaturalism. This, according to Abrams, is a pattern that takes its philosophical origins from Hegel and Schelling, a structure that is aided in its support of the narrative by Shange's use of the arts, in this case, three—weaving, music, and dance. It is Shange's use of the arts metaphor in the exploration of African American female selfhood that I intend to examine in this essay.
In the novel, weaving occupies a central position, for it is the symbol of the mother-daughter relationship, and it maintains the unity of the novel. It also functions, as it has in much of Western literature, as a symbol of creation and life, of multiplicity and growth. We are reminded of the three fates: Atropos, who carried the shears and cut the thread of life; Clotho, who carried the spindle and spun the thread of life; and Lachesis, who carried the globe and scroll and determined the length of life. Weaving is a universal activity found also, for example, in African culture where, as opposed to European culture, it is not a gender-specific activity. However, in this instance, Shange transforms the motif and makes weaving a distinctly African American female activity and a means of exploring the essential self.
Early in the novel, weaving is a symbol of maturity or womanhood. It is, for example, an activity pursued by Hilda, Sassafras, and Cypress and does not include the prepubescent Indigo. We are told, "If the rhythm was interrupted, Sassafras would just stare at the loom. Cypress would look at her work and not know where to start or what gauge her stitches were. Mama would burn herself with some peculiarly tinted boiling water. Everybody would be mad and not working, so Indigo would be sent to talk to the dolls" (7). Weaving, here, becomes a nonverbal expression of sisterhood and a shared activity between women.
In the symbolism of weaving, we also find an exploration of Hilda Effania's consciousness and value system. For her, weaving is a source of joy and is the dominant motif of motherhood. Weaving features largely, for example, in the Christmas celebration in the Effania household. When the girls are home for Christmas, Hilda is weaving and enjoying the fullness of life. We are told that her most precious time "was spinning in the kitchen, while the girls did what they were going to do" (55). In this context, weaving is also associated with gift-giving and spiritual, psychic, and intellectual bonding between women. Her gifts to Sassafras and Cypress are handmade and consistent with each daughter's interest. To Sassafras she gives a woven blanket and eight skeins of "finest spun cotton dyed so many colors" (68), and to Cypress she gives a tutu. In turn, Sassafras's gift to Hilda is "a woven hanging called ‘You Know Where We Came From Mama’ & six amethysts with holes drilled thru for her mother's creative weaving" (70).
Juxtaposed to Sassafras's aesthetic preoccupation with weaving is Hilda's practical concern. Just as each daughter has artistic and spiritual dreams based on which she seeks to shape her being and her destiny, so we are told, "Hilda Effania had some dreams of her own. Not so much to change the world, but to change her daughters' lives. Make it so that they wouldn't have to do what she did. Listen to every syllable came out of that white woman's mouth. It wasn't really distasteful to her. She liked her life. She liked making cloth: the touch, the rhythm of it, colors. What she wanted for her girls was more than that. She wanted happiness, however they could get it. Whatever it was. Whoever brought it" (57). In her pragmatism, Hilda, like many women in Western literature—Penelope and Anna come to mind—sees weaving as a means of constructing and maintaining a life-support system for the family and preserving the integrity of the kinship group. While she enjoys the craft, it is for her merely an occupation—a means of survival, and her desire for her daughters is a means of survival that would allow them their own direction and liberation from the dictates of the prevailing white power structure. This desire is especially clear in her reaction to Miz Fitzhugh's monetary gift to the girls. The annual gift comes with specific constraints, and we are mindful of Miz Fitzhugh's bigoted view of Hilda and her children and their "gall" as she sees it to seek existences as African American women outside of traditional "Negro" roles. Like the crafty Penelope, Hilda has a hidden set of motivations. While she preserves her positive relationship with Miz Fitzhugh, she also maintains her central position in her daughters' lives. That they have only one mother and that they will not be defined by white America is evident in Hilda's allowing the girls to spend the money exactly as they please.
Also significant to Hilda's identity as a mother is that, just as she literally weaves, she figuratively weaves a blanket of spiritual and emotional protection for her daughters. We are told, for example, of her concerns for Indigo, because the child even early in life pursues her own direction and defines for herself an identity and code of values out of deeply traditional southern folk beliefs and practices. The child, according to Hilda, "has too much of the South in her." We see this ever-spreading blanket of protection in her letters to the girls in which she expresses concern and passes judgment on their lifestyles, but pours out an incessant supply of loving support for them and their directions while expressing her desire that they acquire traditional American success in fine husbands and professions.
Weaving is also the axis of Sassafras's development as an African American woman. As a weaver, Sassafras comes into spiritual and emotional fruition through plying the craft she learned from Hilda. Ironically, Sassafras is the only one of Hilda's children whom Miz Fitzhugh attempts to appreciate. Out of this appreciation, she is motivated to finance Sassafras's prep school education. Her view of Sassafras and her weaving, however, is warped, since for Sassafras weaving is more than a mere honorable trade but is instead an affirmative merging of her artistic imagination and her womanhood. Miz Fitzhugh's presence, then, is significant to the dialogical relationship existing between the reader and the text, for she serves to remind the reader that for all their insulation, not even privileged African American women are immune to the intrusions of race and class; that only determination like Hilda's and firm self-definition like that of Sassafras can protect the African American woman from such intrusion.
Although Sassafras is eventually successful in her quest, her affirmation is not to be achieved without difficulties and frustrations as she finds herself thwarted and tested in the pursuit of her craft and in her attempt to reconcile her artistic and psychosexual beings. Sassafras endures these tests at the hands of her lover, Mitch, a musician who in his chauvinism seeks to undermine her talents and self-esteem and to denigrate her womanhood. Ignorant of the worth of her weaving, which she has to hide from him, he is by implication and deed insensitive to the full measure of her being. Weaving, then, is associated with Sassafras's assertion of selfhood as the activity becomes a retreat from the misogyny of Mitch and his two friends, Howard and Otis. Her weaving also allows her to absorb herself in the sanctity of her African American female heritage, which enables her to see herself in a positive light. We are told, "Sassafras had always been proud that her mother had a craft; that all the women in her family could make something besides a baby…. She had grown up in a room full of spinning wheels, table and floor looms, and her mother was always busy making cloth … but Sassafras had never wanted to weave, she just couldn't help…. It was as essential to her as dancing is to Carmen de Lavallade, or singing to Aretha Franklin…. Making cloth was the only tradition that Sassafras had inherited that gave her a sense of womanhood that was rich and sensuous, not tired and stingy" (91, 92). This insightful acknowledgment of her identity as a weaver is significant and necessary to her total well-being. It connects her to the larger tradition of womanhood. It ultimately creates for her a niche in the Black artists' and craftsmen's commune just outside New Orleans, and it allows her to merge spiritually with the Yoruba practices and value system of the commune. More important, it underlies her realization that she and Mitch can never reconcile their arts and spirits because they have divergent orientations and absolutely incongruous and disparate views of themselves and the world. Finally, in keeping with the association of weaving with reproduction, life, and growth, we find that this same realization, reinforced by the Afrocentric ethos of the commune and the growth Sassafras experiences there, gives her the strength she needs to shake the bonds of male dependency by ridding herself of Mitch, returning to Charleston to have a baby (the symbol of a new and healthy self), and, in Hilda's discourse, to "find the rest of [herself]" (220).
Like weaving, music in the novel is central to female development and identity. In the novel the music motif bears both positive and negative connotations as it assists in shaping the women's worldview and in defining for the reader and for the women themselves their place in the world.
First, music is the metaphor for Indigo's identity and her passage from childhood into African American womanhood. After her first menstrual period, Uncle John gives her a fiddle for which she demonstrates a natural love and talent. At the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, Uncle John sees the fiddle as a means of connecting Indigo with her past and with the folk tradition. At this time, Uncle John becomes her mentor as he explains to her the link between music and the psychic survival of slaves:
Them whites that owned slaves took everything was ourselves…. Just threw it on away…. Took them drums what they could … but they couldn't take our feet. Took them languages we speak. Took off wit our spirits & left us wit they Son. But the fiddle was the talkin one. The fiddle be callin' our gods what left us / be giving back some devilment & hope in our bodies worn down & lonely over these fields and kitchens. … What ya think music is, whatchu think the blues be, & them get happy church musics is about but talkin' wit the unreal what's mo' real than most folks ever gonna know.
Here, Indigo learns that knowing the past is central to understanding the present, and music is integral to this lesson. Uncle John's influence remains dominant in Indigo's psyche as she continues to learn to play the fiddle with a view to retaining her link to the past and to the folk tradition. We also find that as she matures she remains steeped in the folk tradition and so defines her personhood.
Indigo's fiddle playing further facilitates her entree into local folk tradition when, as a result of her playing and the accompanying near mystical power, she acquires the friendship of Spats and Crunch, two Junior Geechee Captains, and is accepted and initiated as a Junior Geechee Captain herself. This evolving sense of folk identity also serves to shepherd Indigo out of childhood, as witnessed by her willingness to relinquish the childhood companionship of her dolls and pursue her music under the auspices of Sister Mary Louise, Uncle John, Spats and Crunch, and Pretty Man, the owner of a local tavern with a working-class clientele. It is this element of society that can relate to Indigo and her music. While they can perceive her genuine efforts to "play her own mind" and thus become increasingly steeped in the local folk tradition and her allegiance to the folk, Hilda, consistent with her middle-class dreams for her daughters, wants Indigo to have a conventional experience with music and encourages her to take traditional violin lessons. We note that at this stage of her development, Indigo's music lacks harmony; but as she becomes more personally integrated, her music becomes more melodious and less resembles the sounds of "banshees."
Music also becomes the metaphor for Indigo's maturation as she contemplates the meaning of womanhood. This is evident, for example, when Pretty Man's girlfriend, Mabel, fails to fully understand the implications of Indigo's experience with music and thus receives a beating from him. The reader is aware that Mabel and Indigo are motivated by two widely divergent sets of influences, Mabel by the profit motive and Indigo by the ancestral and folk spirits. Indigo, however, realizes only that she is responsible for Mabel's suffering. Through the medium of music she comes to understand the need for bonding between women, particularly African American women, because "the Colored had hurt enough already" (49). Later in the novel, music becomes the symbol of Indigo's full maturation and true identity as a midwife and folklorist on Difuskie Island, where she goes to live and study with her Aunt Haydee. There, Indigo studies and plays the violin and is able to contribute to and find her place among the folk. Music becomes the metaphor for Indigo's mode of expression and mystical powers—indeed, her psychic connection with her ancestral and folk past. Initially her fiddle playing serves to "soothe" the women in childbirth. Later, however, Indigo and her music become an institution as mothers and children seek spiritual refuge in her. Ultimately, Indigo and her music merge with the folk tradition on Difuskie Island. Through her powerful fiddle playing she is linked with the legend of the indomitable slave woman, Blue Sunday, who, as no one except Indigo had since done, moved the sea. Thus, armed with her talents and her spiritual and psychic connection with her folk past, Indigo assumes an easy and natural place among the folk and later inherits a position of responsibility when Aunt Haydee dies.
Shange also uses the music metaphor in her portrayal of African American male-female relationships. She demonstrates the developmental role of these relationships in the lives of African American women through the stark contrast between two significant relationships. On the one hand, there is the liaison between Sassafras and Mitch, in which music bears the Dionysian associations of destruction. In addition, just as in literature music has been associated with war, so the motif is used here to depict the battle between the sexes.
Mitch, a former juvenile delinquent, now a prison parolee, and worse yet, a junkie, is a musician. While he perceives himself to be an artist, music is, in his hands, a weapon and a means by which he can act out his brutally misogynistic tendencies. Part of this brutality is psychological, which we see in his efforts to negate Sassafras's creative impulses. He is, for example, intolerant of her weaving, for he does not fully understand its value as an art form. In addition, he does not allow her to display a sequin and feather hanging shaped like a vagina because, in his view, "it wasn't proper for a new African woman to make things of such a sexual nature" (78). He also tries to intimidate her into writing. The result is that she has to conceal her natural talents; but when, on one occasion, she does attempt to write and is meeting with success, he disrupts her first with sexual overtures and then by playing the Looney Tunes theme. He thus drives Sassafras into the kitchen to begin cooking. Perhaps, however, the most graphic example of the association between Mitch, misogyny, and music lies in the vivid scene in which Sassafras is subjected to Otis's poem "Ebony Cunt," which he reads, musically accompanied by Mitch and Howard. The poem celebrates African American men's sexual exploitation of African American women. When Sassafras voices her intolerance, she indicates in her rage the men's connection with African American women, and, consequently, embarrasses Mitch in front of his friends. His solution is violence. He beats her after the others leave and then plays the solo from Eric Dolphy's "Green Dolphin Street."
Because, as we can infer, Mitch is, for any number of reasons, detached from the feminine in himself; because he cannot see equality and harmony between the sexes; because, further, his consciousness is not Afrocentric, he lacks creativity. We note that the music he plays is not his own and that when he does offer love to Sassafras, it comes in the form of a "bewitched and tortuous mermaid song" (123). Music, then, becomes the metaphor for the cacophonous, nightmarish element of the male-female relationship that threatens the possibility of harmony and ultimately personhood.
In contrast, music celebrates the possibility of wholesomeness and fullness of life, the possibility of personhood, of light and hope, of union and harmony, as it shapes the context and structure of the relationship between Cypress and Leroy, which stands diametrically opposed to the lack of union between Sassafras and Mitch. Again, it is the music motif that establishes the dichotomy between Leroy and Mitch and their impact on the women's lives. Whereas Mitch has no worthwhile origins, no constructive present, and, hence, no potential for the future, Leroy is moral and disciplined, spiritually and emotionally integrated, and genuinely creative. He is well grounded in a past that has given him direction for a well-structured present and a productive and successful future. Moreover, throughout graduate school Leroy has endured the struggle to le- gitimize African American music and meets ultimately with success, as seen in the progress of his European tour. More important, as opposed to Mitch, Leroy is not misogynistic and sees in Cypress his chance for intimacy. He serves, then, as an enhancement to Cypress and an essential aid to her burgeoning selfhood.
Interconnected with the music motif is that of dance, which, like both weaving and music, bears an important association with female development and identity. Central to Cypress's existence, dance is the means by which she is able to assert her African American heritage, explore her womanhood, and eventually find her niche in the African American, albeit avant-garde middle class. Like Sassafras, however, Cypress finds that the pursuit of self-actualization is not an easy one. Initially, even Hilda is caustic about Cypress's heavy backside and suitability for ballet, but she eventually agrees to support Cypress's study of dance. In this context, dance features in the mother-daughter relationship and is the metaphor for psychic connection and shared values between Hilda and Cypress. It is significant that Hilda's initial views reflect the Euro-American view of the African American woman's body being unsuitable for the "high culture" of ballet. As Hilda grows in her relationship with Cypress, the reader would expect her to overcome the Euro-American view of the Black female body. On this point, however, the text remains silent. On the one hand, this silence underscores the generational distance between the two women, but on the other it reinforces the totality of Hilda's unconditional love and support for Cypress. Later, as Cypress begins to mature as a dancer, she benefits from the African influences brought to dance by Ariel Moroe and the Kushites Returned and the feminist interpretations brought by the lesbian troupe Azure Bosom. Both these troupes offer her options for self-definition. But her experiences with them leave her scarred, for she suffers as a result of Ariel's misogyny and Azure Bosom's emotional cannibalism.
Nevertheless, just as dance is associated with the pain necessary for Cypress's growth, so it is also the means by which she achieves affirmation. The reader is made aware of this affirmation through the combined motifs of music and dance, which are worked out through the perfect harmony she shares with Leroy. In this context music and dance converge into a cathartic, healing experience when, in a drunken, broken-hearted state after her lesbian affair with Idrina of Azure Bosom, Cypress finds herself in the Golden Onk. It is there that she enters a new realm and experiences a new universe where all is cosmic harmony. She hears Leroy's music and becomes "a dance of a new thing, her own spirit, loose, fecund, deep" (156).
In addition, the combined motifs of dance and music serve to dramatize the healing, restorative power of love as we follow the relationship of Cypress and Leroy and Cypress's increasing empowerment. Leroy inspires Cypress to dance, and she, in turn, learns through dance that she need not learn to read music—that she can "just climb into it" (196). As a result of Leroy's presence and influence, Cypress is able to expand her horizons through dance and resolve her questions about the ills of her past associations with Ariel and Idrina. Similarly, Cypress's presence and influence enable Leroy to face and dismiss the bitter memories of past racial injustices. In short, music and dance in the novel become symbols of the growth and emancipation of the human spirit. Such liberation can culminate only in joy and harmony, which in the novel is manifested in Leroy's proposal of marriage and Cypress's acceptance.
In what traditional American critical discourse might term this "highly experimental novel," each woman's voyage into self-discovery constitutes her story. Each woman's journey necessitates a return to the place which, for good or for ill, whether she will stay there or not, she must call home. Each returns to Charleston—Sassafras to give birth, the symbol of a new life, assisted in the act by her sisters; Indigo to carry out last rites for Aunt Haydee; and Cypress to begin a new life with Leroy. Facilitated by the arts motif, the return or circular plot structure is complete as each sister finds herself back in her Charleston origins, having explored her womanhood in distinctly African American terms through the medium of art.
In her construction of a narrative that outlines the development into womanhood of these three sisters, Shange has employed a dominant theme that surfaces in much of African American women's fiction: the quest theme that, according to Claudia Tate, is "a character's personal search for a meaningful identity and self-sustaining dignity in a world of growing isolation, meaninglessness, and moral decay" (xix). And in so doing, Shange, like many of her counterparts, has reconstructed the traditional Euro-American female bildungsroman, which typically depicts female growth down into womanhood and its life of privilege. Shange's novel gives us a new form that depicts one of several African American female patterns of growth into selfhood. These are, however, patterns that frequently challenge traditional American expectations. Their depiction involves the reader in a dialogical process with the reality external to the text that necessitates the reader's resistance of traditional Euro-American values, which have not only given rise to negative stereotypes of African American women but have also mandated an ideal African American female identity: a middle class, darker skinned, sometimes victimized, but otherwise identical version of a white woman. Shange's female characters, however, are far more than blackfaced white middle-class women, for they represent a distinct and affirming Afrocentric experience and value system that result from a successful fusion of African sensibilities and western culture.
Abrams, M. H. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1971.
Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon Press, 1985.
Shange, Ntozake. for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf. New York: Macmillan, 1975.
———. Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982.
Tate, Claudia. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983.
Kent, Assunta. "The Rich Multiplicity of Betsey Brown. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 7, no. 1 (fall 1992): 151-61.
Provides a detailed overview of the development of a script for the musical version of Betsey Brown; a summary of its story line; and a mixed review of the 1991 production of the play at the McCarter Theater.
Saldivar, José David. "The Real and the Marvelous in Charleston, South Carolina: Ntozake Shange's Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo. In Genealogy and Literature, edited by Lee Quinby, pp. 175-92. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
Studies Shange's use of Latin American and Afro-Caribbean magic realism in Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo.
Splawn, P. Jane. "‘Change the Joke[r] and Slip the Yoke’: Boal's ‘Joker’ System in Ntozake Shange's for colored girls … and Spell #7." Modern Drama 41, no. 3 (fall 1998): 386-98.
Contends that in for colored girls and Spell #7 "Shange change[d] the ‘Joker’ as manifested in the American minstrel tradition into a subversive ‘in yr face’ symbol of defiance—a contemporary version of Ellison's slipping of the yoke of oppression through the use of the mask."
Additional coverage of Shange's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: African American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 9, 66; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1:3; Black Writers, Ed. 2; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary American Dramatists; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 85-88; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 48, 74, 131; Contemporary Dramatists, Eds. 5, 6; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 8, 25, 38, 74, 126; Contemporary Poets, Eds. 5, 6, 7; Contemporary Women Dramatists; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 38, 249; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules, Eds. DRAM, MULT; Drama Criticism, Vol. 3; Drama for Students, Vols. 2, 11; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vols. 4, 5; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers (eBook), Ed. 2005; Modern American Literature, Ed. 5; Novels for Students, Vol. 11; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Something about the Author, Vol. 157; and St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers.
"Shange, Ntozake 1948–." Black Literature Criticism: Classic and Emerging Authors since 1950. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/shange-ntozake-1948
"Shange, Ntozake 1948–." Black Literature Criticism: Classic and Emerging Authors since 1950. . Retrieved July 23, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/shange-ntozake-1948
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