Looking back at 2018, many may argue that it was a year of and about women. Women broke their silence, and spoke out about what matters to them. Women ran for office in record numbers, and held influential and powerful men accountable in cases of sexual harassment and assault with the #MeToo Movement. Women everywhere—white, yellow, red, brown, and black alike—used their voices to fight against sexism, racism, classism, ableism, and ageism. Using various platforms like music, movies, literature, poetry, and speeches, women unapologetically, truthfully, and boldly expressed themselves.
Women like Michelle Obama, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Beyonce, Nikki Minaj, Reese Witherspoon, Amy Poehler, Meryl Streep, Sandra Oh, Emma Stone, Stacey Adams, Tamika Mallory, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison made their voices heard and inspired others to do the same. Even Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes touched on issues of sexual abuse and empowered women to call out their abusers. In the midst of all of this amazing female power, one who embodies the spirit of all of these women, Ntozake Shange, made her transition from this life. In the African tradition, as well as in other cultures, some may say Shange is now one of the ancestral elders who will continue to guide and inform us.
To this end, Shange’s death is inspiring many to reflect and revisit the genius of and in her work. While Shange’s literary oeuvre is quite extensive, she is best known for For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1975). This play received an Obie Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, and the AUDELCO Award as well as Tony, Grammy, and Emmy Award nominations. In 2010, director Tyler Perry adapted the choreo-poem into a feature-length film. Furthermore, on the Poetry Foundation’s website, For Colored Girls is characterized as:
[a] unique blend of poetry, music, dance and drama called a “choreopoem,” it “took the theatre world by storm,” noted Jacqueline Trescott in the Washington Post, as it “became an electrifying Broadway hit and provoked heated exchanges about the relationships between black men and women. … Its form—seven women on the stage dramatizing poetry—was a refreshing slap at the traditional, one-two-three-act structures.”
Mel Gussow, writing in the New York Times, stated that “Miss Shange was a pioneer in terms of her subject matter: the fury of black women at their double subjugation in white male America.”
Shange’s fury and insight brought fire, drama, and excitement to the stage and has been voiced by others, particularly black, female playwrights. For example, in the posthumously written New York Times article, “Seven Flames Kindled by the Focused Fire of Ntozake Shange,” Laura Collins-Hughes shares how playwright and spoken word artist Aleshea Harris pays homage to Shange in her work: “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.’” These very sentiments are also connected to the movement of women today. In viewing this play, particularly in the city of Chicago, women–particularly black women–who choose to voice their concerns and bring themselves to the forefront of the American landscape will see themselves reflected in Shange’s work.
Although For Colored Girls first appeared on the stage in 1975, its themes permeate our current American conversation. Simultaneously, Shange’s text is laced with key historical references, including Willie Colon, Toussaint L’ouverture, and Claude McKay’s poem “Harlem Dancer.” The women express feeling excluded from critical places and spaces in cities like St. Louis, New York City, Chicago, Houston, Baltimore, Detroit, and San Francisco. This notion of “being on the outside as a woman,” particularly a black woman, contributes to its timeliness as women continue to fight for a seat at the table.
In the forward of the 2010 second publication of her play, Shange beautifully articulates: “for colored girls continues to resonate so profoundly almost forty years after I first set pen to paper. It is bittersweet for me. Though we have achieved many milestones, the stories and struggles of our lives as women, and in particular, women of color, are still not granted the full address due. But, then, perhaps that is part of the fuel that moves me to continue writing.” Parallel to Shange’s guiding words here, For Colored Girls continues to resonate as we examine the stories and struggles of women today. Witnessing these powerful stories will inevitably move us all to empathize with women beyond Court Theatre’s stage, supporting their march to be heard throughout America and across the world.
Dr. Khalilah T. Watson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications English at Olive-Harvey College-One of the City Colleges of Chicago. Her areas of specialization are composition, twentieth century African American fiction, and literary theory, particularly Toni Morrison. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Georgia State University, a master’s degree from Eastern Michigan University, and a bachelor’s degree from Albion College.