Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza on 'Some Sing, Some Cry' and 'For Colored Girls'

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010

For those who think the Broadway play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf" was a cultural moment in the 1970s, the author has this news:

"Well, the book ain't over," says Ntozake Shange, who was 28 in 1976 when she became a literary and feminist icon for her work demanding that society pay attention to the struggles of black women.

And for those who thought Shange's career as an artist had ended after a stroke six years ago left her unable to speak, walk or write -- well, Shange now has an answer to that question, too.

Last week, Shange, 61, released a new novel that she has written with her sister, Ifa Bayeza, an award-winning playwright. "Some Sing, Some Cry" chronicles the lives of seven generations of musically gifted black women -- from slavery into the 21st century. On Nov. 5, a movie version of "For Colored Girls" is set to be released by director Tyler Perry.

The two sisters read from their book on a recent evening at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. The audience was packed with many African American women who remembered "For Colored Girls" on Broadway and had been struck by the way in which the play explained so beautifully for a mainstream audience what they had long felt: that because they were neither male nor white, they had not been given the luxury of the benefit of the doubt.

"When I saw it for the first time in the 1970s, I felt empowered," said Miriam Kearse, 47, of Silver Spring, who came to hear Shange. "I learned it was okay to vocalize not being okay. It was okay to feel bad to the point you are going to snap. It allowed me to be freer at expressing my emotions. I saw my mother's generation putting up with stuff. I knew I did not have to."

"Some Sing, Some Cry" blends stories, music and poetry in much the same way "For Colored Girls" did.

The house lights dimmed and the sisters arrived onstage. Shange, in a cropped Afro, stood stage right in a green print dress that fell daringly off her shoulders, her tattooed back revealed. Her cane was propped nearby. Her words sounded less fiery than they did in 1976, but her voice was still forceful:

"The first orange light of sunrise left a flush of rose and lavender on Betty's hands as she fingered the likenesses of her children. There were tears she was holding back and cocks crowing, as well as her granddaughter's shouts, 'Nana, you ready?' Betty sighed and closed the album reluctantly. Time had come for the last of the Mayfields to leave Sweet Tamarind, the plantation they'd known as home for generations."

Music took over the stage and suddenly the reading of the novel came alive with song and dance and acting.

Piece by piece

Earlier in the evening, backstage, Shange and Bayeza explained how they came to write this novel together, piece by piece, chapter by chapter. Shange appeared regal in a gold dress, bracelets dangling. Her sister, wearing jeans and a black shirt, sat across from her in a leather chair. Shange looked to her sister to help her remember and give voice to her story.

Back in 1978, soon after "For Colored Girls" became a hit, "a television producer approached us about writing a series through one family of matriarchs," Shange explained.

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