IN THE LAST few years Ntozake Shange has begun to be raised up by many as a significant voice in American and African-American letters, which is as it should be. Shange has a significant individual voice that is clearly hers and though the roots of her expression stretch off in a multiplicity of directions, the main thrust is original and consistently poignant and full of moving emotion.
I've seen for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, spell no. 7 , her adaptation of Brecht's Mother Courage, and read the book of poetry nappy edges. Mother Curage was a drag that she shoudn't have been papptalked into doing -- why not just let African-American artists put on their own works, why do all the works have to be redo's, adaptations and the like, when we have our own lives, history, culture and art boiling in us to express? Must it always be black Wizard of Oz's or Black Shakespeare abortions that literary stormtroopers can castigate with some righteousness?
But Ntozake Shange is a formidable voice. for colored girls , for all its criss-cross of celebration and putdowns, was an original. The choreo-poem methodology was hip, though it was certainly an offshoot of the poetic drama choruses that came on us in the '60s and the '70s from Spirit House and The Last Poets and others. But she took it further and dramatized the poetry which, technically and formally, was forward motion and even upward. What stalled that coup was the fact that the content of colored girls was not complete. Shange asked questions, gave partial answers but she could not supply the totality of causation (the "casual connections" Brecht said) so that the origins of women's oppression still lay in the dark as some mystical man-sicknesses and not scientifically elaborated as rooted in class society.
nappy edges was a real step for this poet. She actually could be seen and heard to have a real distinct voice and was obviously hip to "the state of the art" as witnessed by the strength, lyricality and compassionate elegance of her language. And for Shange, her language is the bottom line of her strength and the interest she holds as a writer, but particularly, as a poet.
spell no. 7 , as a production, had a lot of life but again for all the strength and modern swiftness -- iron speed -- of the language, one wondered: What, after all, is the matter? What is it about, aside from its stunning language? There were, are, deep thrusts into the poet's psyche and the audience, but it was, is, more like a digging, a wild mining process in which dee miner do not quite know what it is he trying to bring back.
three pieces is a collection of three of Shange's theater works. Again, all three are marked by absolutely contemporary language skills and ear. The language is full of new music and the fullopen association complexes that one associates with modern writing. But again, one wonders what it is that is being talked about other than the poet and her mind-connects. The contact lags -- though sometimes it manages to peep through. As, for instance, in many of the poems that she hangs together as drama -- some of them do try to look out at a real world, a world that exists -- even independently of lyric poets, and tells us something moving and important about that world. But many times she is content merely to rummage in the weird stash of her own subjectivity and slash with color and rhythm so that we all know that she is alive (at least) and struggling for conciousness.
The confusion that marked colored girls persists (though she seems clearer, in the introduction, on racism, than is evident consistently in the work) -- the minstrel symbolism, the obsession with her light "nappy" hair, being colored, being a woman, a black woman, her petty bourgeois background, being an artist, are some of the elements of her confusion. Again, too often the causal connections are missing and what we get is lyrical pop-offs from the top of the naps rather than resolution through precise feeling based on clear perception of reality!
Also Shange has not quite got into the dramatic form on the real side. These works are mostly lyric poems strung together sometimes only by various ways of saying, "Well, what am I thinking this time?" Like magnified footpushes on the accelerator!
The result of this can be anything from boredom to the feeling that all the "characters" in her pieces are the poet talking to herself about herself. (This is especially true with boogie woogie landscapes , even though that piece has some extraordinary language in it as well.)
a photograph has the most pretentions toward the dramatic form and it even has a group of characters that can more or less be clearly delineated as other selves. But these are the most egocentric boring little arty Negroes that one could imagine, apparently with nothing to do but mess with each other and madden us with their unlimited self-love.
Shange is faced with a basic task in order to raise her work to another level, one in which she is both innovative linguistically and interesting and relevant as far as her content is concerned. She must come out of the "under the bed", "asleep", "ease into fog" navel contemplation being/lifestyle/consciousness and deal with actual people-all-over-the-place-world.
Even amoebas are "sensitive." What we need is some actual information about the world -- which she frequently gives us -- raised up in us so heavy because her musical form takes us even deeper into our consciousness than lectures with slides. Perhaps we are asking a great deal of this poet now; time will tell, as Malcolm used to say. For sure, she is early enough in her career to mature a great deal. But she has all the tools and the skills, the push now must be that she has to deal with the real world and not the dits and dots and undifferentiated color and sound of her subjectivity. She must use that hairtrigger sensibility and musical ear to illuminate the actual world.