The Worlds of Shange

by Ama Debrah

This Thursday, I attended the opening event for The Worlds of Ntozake Shange performance and conference, held in celebration of the life works of playwright and dancer Ntozake Shange, BC ’70. Although I had never read any of Shange’s works prior to attending the event, I had viewed portions of Tyler Perry’s controversial take on her most well known play, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, and was excited to hear her opinion on the movie.

Poet, playwright, and Barnard alumna Ntozake Shange.

The opening night event started with a series of performances of Shange’s work as interpreted by Barnard students. The performances and the student’s take on Shange’s poems was extremely moving, and it was interesting to see how each performer took Shange’s poems and related it to their own experience as women. During the talkback after the student performances, the students spoke about how each of Shange’s poems meant something different to each of them, which is a testament to how modern and current Shange’s work is.

The next portion of the event was a talk between Ntozake Shange and Dianne McIntyre, a renowned dancer who is a longtime friend of Shange and worked with her to choreograph many performances of her poems. McIntyre and Shange laughed and reminisced together, speaking about how Shange’s style of dancing was “backwards” when she first started to coming to McIntyre’s studio, and how McIntyre would constantly be perplexed by Shange’s deep understanding of current events. As McIntyre later said, “To say [Shange is] well-read is an understatement.” Although Shange’s poems commonly deal with the black community in urban New York, she emphasized that her work doesn’t always have a political spin. For example, in a particularly humorous anecdote, Shange and McIntyre mentioned that one of Shange’s poems, which was originally thought to be about the degradation of the black community, was actually about “suckin’ a man’s dick.”

Shange’s most famous play.

Even though Shange herself admitted that she has a debilitating disease that makes it difficult for her to move her legs and arms, I was struck by her strength, humor, and passion for life. Shange and McIntyre talked about the intrinsic link between poetry and dance, and Shange mentioned that without dance she cannot write, stating that, “A phrase in a poem is like a phrase in dance for me- that’s how I experience it.” In an especially heart-wrenching moment, Shange mentioned that even though she can no longer dance, her unconsciousness gives her a gift every night by allowing her to dance in her dreams; “Every night I can fly,” said Shange.

When asked about her response to Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls, Shange curtly replied that she was “very disappointed with the film,” and that Perry did not take into consideration any of her notes or allow her to partake in the production of the film. The intention of for colored girls was, in Shange’s words, to make her audience “feel better about being women,” which was a goal she did not feel the movie achieved.

The last question asked during the panel centered on Shange’s personal experience at Barnard. While Shange noted that she had initially wanted to transfer to a historically black college because Barnard did not offer Africana studies, she stated that her time at Barnard was the “first time I felt intellectually valued,” and that many of her professors were her role models. As Shange expressed many times during the panel, she doesn’t want to be remembered for one play or poem, but rather for her entire work as a whole. With the passion that Shange has ignited in the upcoming generation as observed from the student performances, it’s clear that Shange’s work will be timeless.

Ama Debrah is a junior at Barnard and the New York and On Campus Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Images courtesy of BCRW and  Dust Tracks On a Road.

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