November 14, 2018

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Seven Flames Kindled by the Focused Fire of Ntozake Shange

Seven Flames Kindled by the Focused Fire of Ntozake Shange
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This week seven playwrights who came powerfully onto the scene in the decades after Ms. Shange’s debut spoke about her impact and legacy. These are edited excerpts from those interviews.

Dominique Morisseau, a 2018 MacArthur Fellow, has had what she said is “an ongoing relationship” with Ms. Shange’s plays since high school.

There have been so many of us who have found our entry point into playwriting through her work. For me that’s very particularly true because I was a spoken-word artist who had never written a play.

“For Colored Girls” is written with no punctuation and no capitalization and with all these slash marks, and that really inspired a different kind of pentameter than Shakespeare, a different kind of rhythm and heartbeat to the work. And that revolutionized the way I saw myself as a participant in theater in general, as an actor and a writer. So when I wrote my first play in college, it was a choreopoem.

Ms. Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, watched the success of Ms. Shange — who was just 27 when “For Colored Girls” opened on Broadway — but also her struggles later on.

I think it’s really hard on an artist when you’re in your 20s and suddenly the world’s spotlight goes on you and you’re being asked to be the voice representing a generation. That was an incredible gift and burden that was placed on her shoulders.

She certainly was writing at a time when the resistance was not only the white establishment but also black theaters that really defined theater as that which was written by men. And she was putting things onstage that for a long time no one dared to speak of in mixed company. Abuse within the black community. There were people who felt that she was airing dirty laundry — black men who as a result resented not only her writing but her success.

The playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith still detects Ms. Shange’s rhythmic influence in her students at New York University. Ms. Smith, who depicted Ms. Shange in her documentary play “Fires in the Mirror,” first saw “For Colored Girls” at the Public in 1976.

It was a phenomenon at the time, and I frankly don’t believe that any of us would be here without Zake — not just black artists and not just women.

African-American women, we get punished for running our mouth. If I run my mouth too much, I’m going to pay for it. And what I loved about Zake was, she didn’t care. She ran her mouth.

She gave us such a great gift. And even if people thought it was an indictment of men or an indictment of white people, what she brought with her was an incredible love of human beings.

Aleshea Harris, the Obie Award-winning author of “Is God Is,” was, like Ms. Shange, a performance poet before she became a playwright.

She’s given me so much permission — to be unapologetic, to talk about my pain and my joy. I’ve certainly been a colored girl who’s considered suicide, so just the title, everything, it feels like “You are here, I affirm you, you exist, and you should exist loudly.”

I was thinking about that line in “For Colored Girls,” “I found God in myself and I loved her fiercely,” and the lineage of her work in my work. However sort of subconscious, it’s there. The idea that God is in a black woman and that she should fight for herself is certainly something that I’m exploring with “Is God Is.”



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