The billboard on 42nd Street near Times Square was half a block long. Scrawled in rainbow colors was the title of an innovative new play, "for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf." And adorning that 1977 billboard was a portrait of a young black woman in a do-rag: the playwright Ntozake Shange .
Shange's rise to international fame and her sudden disappearance — followed by decades of physical and mental health challenges — are part of one of the most dramatic lives in Broadway history. Now, Shange reflects on these events and more in a new collection of poetry called "Wild Beauty."
In 1975, Shange had arrived in New York from California with her dancer friend Paula Moss and a satchel of poems. She and Moss began reading and dancing to Shange's poems in New York cafes. The next thing Shange knew, she was being whisked off by theatrical producer Woodie King Jr., who told her what she'd really written was a play. After a few weeks of working with King and others, Shange winnowed her poems down to the voices of seven women, who remain nameless but can be identified by the colors of their dresses.
King produced the nascent play at the New Federal Theatre, and patrons lined up around the block for tickets. The legendary producer/director Joe Papp saw it and brought it to his Public Theater and then the Booth Theatre . In a manner seldom seen on Broadway or anywhere else, "for colored girls" was instantly recognized as classic — a watershed in the history of theater for the way it combined poetry, music and dance into a seamless whole.
But Shange herself, after dancing and performing in her own play on Broadway for the first three weeks , suddenly disappeared. Her departure to Europe at the height of her celebrity seemed a mystery to those who didn't know her well. But in reality what had happened was an old story: a young artist unprepared for fame or big money becomes a casualty of her own triumph.
In Shange's case, the descent into darkness included a lot of other destructive forces. For one, she had undiagnosed bipolar disorder. For another, she unloosed a lot of demons when she voiced the anguish and anger of many women (not just black women) who had experienced rape, domestic violence and child abuse. She endured sharp criticism from contemporary black male writers, including Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed, who claimed her play was an attack on black men.
In truth, Shange had become a writer because she felt the new wave of black writing in the 1960s had left women out. She was a proponent of all forms of black liberation, including the Black Arts Movement, but she also felt a lot of that revolution was sexist, and she sought to create a place for women artists. She had not expected the blast of hate that would come back at her.
For decades she fought substance abuse and depression, but as a teacher beloved by students at several universities, she never stopped writing plays. In 1980, she won an Obie Award for her adaptation of Brecht's "Mother Courage." She also published poetry, fiction and essays. Still, a series of debilitating physical challenges continued, including the autoimmune disease CIDP, which left her hands nearly paralyzed for seven years.
Then, on All Saints Day, 2015, she felt "there was a poem floating around in my head." She tried writing it down by hand, and her hand cramped up. She tried writing it on her iPad, and her fingers slipped. At last, she sat down at her laptop, turned off the voice recognition, and told herself, "OK, fool, give it a try!"
Miraculously, she typed out her first new poem in years, an overview of her whole life. Titled "these blessings," it appears in her new collection, "Wild Beauty," which contains more than 60 new and previously published poems, all of which are also translated into Spanish by Alejandro Álvarez Nieves. The bilingual edition was Shange's idea, reflecting her lifelong concern with the African diaspora throughout the Americas.
There is no question that Shange is a black writer. Not only does she write in a style that mimics the sound and syntax of black speech, but much of her material is drawn from the daily realities of black life. No poet since Langston Hughes has insisted so forcefully on black people's right to simply be:
when we fall from the stars to the bellies of
our mothers / some folks say
they's music in the air / dontcha think /
we tumble thru a niggah
night / etchin light
thru them black holes
But much of what Shange writes is also about a loss of wholeness. More importantly, she writes of the dream to be whole once again. She continually calls on us to fight against all things that make us less than human:
maybe i could grow me something
some azure flower that would smell
like life to me / a root of some healing spice
might push up from my soils / if i
dream with the souls of black folks.
Gerald Nicosia, the author of "Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac," is currently working on a critical biography of Shange for St. Martin's.
From our archives:
By Ntozake Shange
Atria. 288 pp. $24