Poet, performance artist, playwright, and novelist Ntozake Shange was born Paulette Williams on October 18, 1948, in Trenton, New Jersey. She earned a BA in American studies from Barnard College in 1970 and then left New York to pursue graduate studies at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. It was during this time that she took the name “Ntozake” (“she who comes into her own things”) “Shange” (“she who walks like a lion”) from the Zulu dialect Xhosa. She received an MA in American studies from USC in 1973.
Her many books of poetry include Ridin’ the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings (St. Martin’s Press, 1987); From Okra to Greens (Coffee House Press, 1984); A Daughter’s Geography (St. Martin’s Press, 1983); Three Pieces (1981), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Nappy Edges (St. Martin’s Press, 1978); Natural Disasters and Other Festive Occasions (Heirs, 1977); and Melissa & Smith (Bookslinger, 1976).
Among her plays are Daddy Says (1989); Spell #7 (1985); From Okra to Greens/A Different Kinda Love Story (1983); A Photograph: Lovers-in-Motion (1981); and the renowned for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (1977), which won an Obie Award and received Tony, Grammy, and Emmy Award nominations. The play, or “choreopoem,” became an instant classic. Performed by an ensemble of seven African American women, the play is comprised of monologues, movement, and poems that together describe the pain and struggle women face because of racism and sexism.
Theater critic Clive Barnes wrote about the play, “This is true folk poetry. It springs from the earth with the voice of people talking with the peculiarly precise clumsiness of life. It is the gaucheness of love. It is the jaggedness of actuality” (The New York Times, June 2, 1976).
About her writing, the poet Ishmael Reed said, “No contemporary writer has Ms. Shange’s uncanny gift for immersing herself within the situations and points of view of so many different types of women.”
She also authored multiple children’s books and prose works, including Some Sing, Some Cry (2010), If I Can Cook You Know God Can (1998), See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays & Accounts, 1976-1983 (1984), Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo: A Novel (1982), and The Black Book (1986, with Robert Mapplethorpe).
Among her numerous honors are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, and a Pushcart Prize. Shange lived in Brooklyn. She died on October 27, 2018.