Ntozake Shange exploded onto the creative scene with her debut poem “for colored girls who considered suicide/when the rain is enuf,” and became a Black feminist icon in the process. Today is the award-winning playwright and poet’s 70th birthday.
Shange was born Paulette L. Williams in Trenton, New Jersey in 1948, moving to St. Louis with her family as a child. Her middle-class upbringing exposed her to some of the greatest Black minds of the time including Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, and W.E.B. Du Bois among others.
As a teen, she returned to New Jersey to complete high school, then enrolled in Barnard College in New York. After graduating, she traveled west to attend graduate school at the University of South California in Los Angeles.
A failed first marriage threw Shange into a depression in the early ’70’s, culminating in the changing of her name. Ntozake, from the Xhosa language, translates into “she who has her own things” and Shange which translates into “he/she who walks with lions.”
Moving to New York ignited Shange’s passion for the arts and writing, prompting her to create a series of poems that would make up “for colored girls” ahead of its 1976 Broadway debut. In that time as well, Shange became a founding poet of the world-famous Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
The “for colored girls” play was an instant smash. The play won the Obie Award for Outstanding Production in 1977, and that same year, Trazana Beverly won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play.
The play was transformed into a film in 2010 directed by Tyler Perry starring Whoopi Goldberg, Phylicia Rashad, and Janet Jackson, among others.
After suffering two strokes, Shange was diagnosed with Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropath a disorder that left her at certain points immobile and unable to read or write. She has since recovered somewhat and has been able to write.
Shange has written several plays, books, children’s books and essays over the course of her still brilliant career.
PHOTO: Barnard College
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