Ntozake Shange, the African-American writer who earned an Obie Award and Tony Award nomination for her 1976 choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, died October 27 at the age of 70. Family members confirmed her death via her official Twitter.
Throughout her works, which spanned from plays to novels to poems, Ms. Shange illuminated the hardships of and journeys toward liberation for Black women—and often challenged the conventions of traditional, white-dominated Western culture in its style.
Born Paulette Williams October 18, 1948, in Trenton, New Jersey, Ms. Shange studied at Barnard College and the University of Southern California. Two years before earning her Master's in American Studies at the latter, she changed her name to the Zulu name Ntozake ("she who comes with her own things") Shange ("who walks like a lion"). "As a feminist, I thought it was ridiculous to be named after a boy," she told The New York Times in 1994.
After graduating in 1973, Ms. Shange returned to New York City, having already presented previous incarnations of for colored girls... in California. After a production at the NoHo jazz loft Studio Rivbea, the piece opened at Off-Broadway's Public Theater in June 1976. Three months later, the play opened at Broadway's Booth Theatre, where it ran for 742 performances. It was the second play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, after Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun.
Inspired by personal events—including Ms. Shange's multiple attempts to take her own life, the "choreopoem" weaves spoken word and dance pieces to tell the story of seven Black women, each identified solely by a color (Ms. Shange herself played the Lady in Orange). While ultimately uniting the seven women in "a laying on of hands," the piece aims to explore the abuse, abandonment, and violence women of color endure.
In 1976, the play earned Ms. Shange an Obie Award, as well as a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. It was adapted for television in 1982 as part of PBS' American Playhouse series, and a 2010 film version from Tyler Perry featured an ensemble cast that included Whoopi Goldberg, Phylicia Rashad, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, and Janet Jackson. A 40th anniversary benefit presentation in 2014 featured LaChanze, Adriane Lenox, Tonya Pinkins, Lillias White, and original cast member Trazana Beverley.
Ms. Shange's later plays included Spell #7 and an adaptation of Mother Courage and Her Children, both of which were presented at the Public—the latter earned her a second Obie Award in 1981. Among her additional works were the poems Nappy Edges and The Sweet Breath of Life, as well as the novels Betsey Brown and Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo.
In 2016, Barnard acquired the archives of Ms. Shange, which included personal photos, artwork, and manuscripts. “I feel as though I came of age as a feminist and an artist at Barnard," she said. "I got all that I ever imagined from an all-women’s college, and I thought my archives belonged here.”