Dr. Brenda M. Greene on Ntozake Shange – Our Time Press


and the Broadway Revival of “For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Inf”

By Dr. Brenda M. Greene
Acclaimed poet, playwright and novelist Ntozake Shange’s Obie Award-winning chorepoem for colored girls who have contemplated suicide / When the Rainbow is Nine, first produced in 1974, boldly defined what meant to be a woman of color in the 20th century. After playing at the Public Theater, the play opened on Broadway in 1976. It has now been revived on Broadway by dancer, choreographer, director and dance teacher Camille A. Brown. I had the opportunity to see this moving and dynamic production on opening night, Wednesday April 20, 2022.

As I sat in the audience watching the play, I was reminded of the feelings that first arose in me when I saw the play at the Public Theater in 1975. I knew the women on this stage. They were my friends from high school and college. They represented all shades and body types. Their joys, their tears, their pain, their frustration with men and their relationships represented what we encountered as young black women coming of age in the late 1960s and 1970s. These sisterly friends didn’t care to keep quiet. and were bold in sharing our stories and secrets. Ntozake Shange exposed these stories and reminded us of the value of storytelling and that in the midst of pain, loss, grief and abuse, we would have moments of joy and we would survive.

Poster for the 2019 Biennial National Conference of Black Writers, hosted by Dr. Brenda Greene.

I also thought of the criticisms that were leveled at Ntozake when the play was released. Like Michele Wallace, author of 1978’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, Ntozake has been accused of portraying only stereotypical interpretations of black men. Wallace argues that the patriarchy, sexism, and racial politics manifested during the Black Arts and Black Power movements had silenced and marginalized black women. The work of the late professor and feminist scholar bell hooks, known for titles like “Ain’t I a Woman” and “All About Love”, has also been seen as a critique of the black man. In Ain’t I a Woman, Hooks argues that many black women refused to participate in the feminist movement because “to vote for feminism was to vote against black liberation. hooks argues that feminist black women are trailblazers. She recounts how black people in America have been traumatized and subjected to hopelessness, helplessness and hopelessness and argues that moving forward in the struggle for liberation requires a radical vision of social change rooted in an ethic of love that will convert, as it did with the civil rights movement, masses of people, black and non-black alike. She notes that by choosing to adopt the ethics of love as a practice, we are choosing to work collectively for the survival of the beloved community. Ntozake Shange’s chorepoem embodies these values. She lays the foundation for black scholars and feminists advocating for black women’s agency.

I had the opportunity to interview Ntozake Shange at his Bedford Stuyvesant home in 2010. When I asked him why was it so important to write this choreography celebrating the voices of black women? She replied with, “It’s hard to approach. I wrote 20 poems over a period of two and a half years. They were poems that I read during readings, in different arrangements and with different nuances, dancers and musicians. We were able to discover elements in the poems and in the music and dance that allowed us to present it to an audience. I had developed a following in the San Francisco Bay Area, but it never occurred to me that he was going out into the world. It was about my community of which I was a part and to which I felt that I belonged. I think part of the confidence and vibrancy of the language comes from that feeling. And I never felt like we had to do anything else. We had that to do. And that was what I could do and that’s what I did.

The Center for Black Literature celebrated the life of Ntozake Shange at the 2019 National Conference of Black Writers biennial symposium, “Playwrights and Screenwriters at a Crossroads.” Ifa Bayeza, playwright, producer, novelist and sister of Ntozake Shange was the keynote speaker. Bayeza told the audience that Ntozake came from a family of storytellers and she described Ntozake’s journey as a poet and playwright and his belief in activism, serving his people and using music, dance and poetry to represent this commitment.

Camille A. Brown’s dynamic revised Broadway production celebrates the power of the word. As viewers, we sympathize with the performers and see the value of oral tradition. We feel the emotion of their struggle as they express the desires, pain, grief, loss and joy of black women. Their cacophony of voices finds strength and support in the collective community.

Award-winning arts marketing consultant Donna Walker-Kuhne, president of Walker International Communications Group, says, “The play is incredible, the direction, the choreography and the direction. The feminism embodied by women is powerful.

Jamila Ponton Bragg, of JamRock Productions and one of the producers of the piece says:
“I was blown away by the beauty of the production on stage. Camille Brown, director and choreographer, energized Ntozake Shange’s words using color and movement to accentuate the actress’ excellent delivery in her timeless piece. It was also wonderful to see the way she used movement to bring the piece into the 21st century – the dance felt like it was taken from a recent video or a club in New York I am proud to be part of the production team and to bring a modern take on this classic work to the Broadway stage.

Ntozake left us a strong message. She showed us the way forward and the path to triumph, to survive and to heal. Healing involves remembering, as Toni Morrison reminds us in her essay on “The Site of Memory”. We are witnesses of women who must remember in order to heal. We recognize their pain, their joy and their passion. By laying on of hands. they form a “ring dance”, a traditional ritual rooted in the African aesthetic of the black community. At the end of the play, the women exclaim: “I have found God within me. We are spectators, observing their transformation and acceptance of the sacred within themselves.

Dr. Brenda M. Greene, professor of English, is founder and executive director of the Center for Black Literature and director of the National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College, CUNY. Founded in 2002, the mission of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY (CBL) is to expand, expand, and enrich the public’s knowledge and aesthetic appreciation of black literature by people of the African Diaspora.

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