So. It’s a Saturday night in Harlem, and it’s the year after I graduated college, and I am partying with some friends in my upstairs neighbor’s apartment. I am none too sober. We are actors and dancers, poets and prose meisters. We are young, we are loud, we are broke.
I am chatting with a friend of my neighbor’s, a young Afro-Latina, a single mom who was smart and funny, and knew a thing about struggle. At the time — again, being none too sober — I chalked it up to reincarnation and karma, but I was convinced I’d just met a long-lost sister. A long-lost sister who had never read, or heard of, Ntozake Shange, poet/playwright/novelist/actor/dancer/Broadway darling.
Which meant that she needed to read Shange, like, now. I ran down to my studio apartment, grabbing every Shange book in my possession -- her plays, her poems, her novel: “For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Was Enuf.” “Sassafrass Cypress and Indigo.” “Three Pieces.” “Nappy Edges." And I gave this total stranger, a total stranger I would never see again, every single one of my babies, compelled by something I didn’t quite understand. At 22, I had never given anyone a bigger gift.
I first discovered Ntozake Shange in college. If you were an earnest colored girl who wanted to make art, an earnest colored girl, say, stuck at an uber white Ivy League school in the wilds of New Hampshire, it was hard not to fall for Shange. Hard. I waited for her latest book to drop like I waited for a Prince album, all eager anticipation. Her writing was anger and rhythm and music and dance. In your face, potent, topical. Even today. And, notwithstanding the specter of suicide and back-alley abortions and no-good, baby-killing men that populated her work, her writing for me meant joy.
Like a lot of other black women who came of age in the early ‘80s, I saw myself in Shange, she of the lowercase letters and the unconventional spelling. And like a lot of other black women, even though I’d never met her, I grieved at the news of Shange’s death at 70 last week.
I felt like my aunt had died.
She was old enough to have seen much more of the world than I, and old enough to have an opinion about it, but young enough that I could still relate to her. She was the younger, hipper aunt who spilled the tea, told you what really went down in the dark hours after the prom, how she gave it up in the backseat graduation night, and how it was good, so good, that she couldn’t stop smiling.
martin slipped his leg round my thigh
the dells bumped "stay" …
WE WAZ GROWN WE WAZ FINALLY GROWN
Like me, she was a doctor’s kid; like me, she was an integration baby, going to school with the white kids on the white side of town, and going home to the upper middle class, decidedly not white side of town when school let out. An experience that left her both properly mad at the world, and possessed of a lacerating wit.
At Dartmouth College, we black theater nerds at the Black Underground Theater and Arts Association (BUTA) embraced her, performing her work in all kinds of incarnations, from full-length productions of “For Colored Girls" to raucous poetry readings in the Afro-Am. I wrote a 75-page senior honors thesis on her, acting in and staging productions of her work. We did it because her work was important, yes. But more than anything, we did it because it was fun.
Shange is best known for “For Colored Girls,” a “choreopoem” that married poetry and dance, telling the stories of anonymous black women identified only by the colors of their dresses. When it made its 1976 Broadway debut, the theatrical world tilted. Nerves were struck. Black women wept. Some black men walked out.
Through her words, we got to vicariously explore the world of marathon salsa/merengue/bomba parties in the Bronx. Or follow Haitian revolutionary hero Toussaint Louverture through the streets of civil rights-era St. Louis.
became my secret love at the age of 8
i entertained him in my bedroom
widda flashlight under my covers
way inta the night/ we discussed strategies
how to remove white girls from my hopscotch games
She had the audacity to create, mucking with both theatrical tradition and punctuation, thumbing her nose at black respectability politics before we even had the words for it. Shange didn’t seem to care whom she enraged. Some black men walked out of “For Colored Girls.” She seemed to be good with that. “They always were trying to paint me as a woman who hated black men, and I didn’t and don’t,” she once said.
Hers was a life that launched many a career. I’ve been scribbling things down since I was a kid, but it took reading Shange, and watching her success at such a young age to show me that maybe I could carve out a living as a writer, too. (I wrote some bad plays in college and had a brief dance career before I ultimately landed on journalism.)
Countless other writers, including Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights Suzan-Lori Parks and Lynn Nottage, felt that call. (We’re not going to talk about why Tyler Perry felt the call to make that awful screen adaptation of “For Colored Girls.”)
Others, like my friend Sharon Washington, alongside whom I danced and acted in many a college production, heard the call in another way.
Sharon, an acting veteran, first saw the Obie Award-winning “For Colored Girls” on Broadway as a Manhattan high schooler.
“I got a copy of the play and like every other wannabe colored girl actress of my generation wore. those. monologues. OUT!!!” she posted on Facebook. “So much so that for a while when you went in to audition people would actually say or put in the notice ‘please no monologues from FOR COLORED GIRLS.’”
Like Sharon, all those wannabe colored girl actresses saw in Shange’s work something they recognized. Something they liked. Something they wanted to love: They saw themselves.