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Obituary: Ntozake Shange – playwright who was ‘a powerful proponent of the black, urban experience’

Ntozake Shange in 1978. Photo: Barnard College Archives/Wikimedia

Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf was only the second play by a black woman to be seen on Broadway.

Nominated for a Tony award in 1977, it ran for 742 performances and established Shange as a powerful proponent of the black, urban experience in an era when Black Power had given way to Blaxploitation and the advances of the women’s liberation movement had begun to stall.

A set of 20 monologues for seven black women identified only by the colours of the rainbow and accompanied by music and dance – which Shange described as “a choreopoem” – the play began its life as a poetry performance in a women-only bar in California. Recognising its potential, producer Woodie King Jr staged it at the New Federal Theatre in New York. Its subsequent run at the city’s Public Theater saw it win an Off-Broadway Obie award prior to it injecting a provocative black voice, unafraid to confront misogyny and racism, on to the Great White Way.

Born Paulette Linda Williams to a surgeon father and social work professor mother in Trenton, New Jersey, after coming to terms with racist abuse, a failed marriage and several suicide attempts, she changed her name to Ntozake Shange in 1971. Taken from South Africa’s Xhosa language, it translates as “she who brings her own things” and “she who walks like a lion”.

Shange wrote another 12 original plays and also adapted Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children – securing her second Obie award – for New York’s Public Theater (1980) and Willy Russell’s Educating Rita for the Alliance Theatre Company, Atlanta (1982).

In Britain, For Colored Girls… was first seen at the Royalty Theatre in 1979, later revivals including the debut production of the black women’s company Siren at the Battersea Arts Centre (1990) and an adaptation by Bonnie Greer for BBC Radio 3 (1996).

The same year, her musical Spell No.7 (seen at the Donmar Warehouse in 1985) also made its way on to radio. In 1998, alongside Marsha Norman, John Guare, Tony Kushner and others, she contributed to Love’s Fire, a series of short plays inspired by Shakespeare’s sonnets by the US-based the Acting Company at London’s Barbican.

An admired poet, she published 19 collections (her last, Wild Beauty, in 2017), six novels, five books for children and three essay collections. Active as a theatre director, she also performed, taught throughout the US (including a spell at Yale University) and was active in a range of political campaigns.

Ntozake Shange was born on October 18, 1948. She had suffered ill health since a series of strokes in 2004. She died on October 27, at the age of 70.

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