Ntozake Shange
Illustration of Ntozake Shange
Illustration of Ntozake Shange by Joey Stocks for The Dramatist

This can’t be the place,” she said as she trudged up the stairs in a building on East 125th Street in Harlem looking for the dance studio—passing by the methadone clinic and navigating around “sniffling” junkies on her climb. Sure enough, that was the place where on the top floor Ntozake Shange first arrived at Sounds in Motion where my company rehearsed and conducted dance classes. She was there for an audition. That’s when we first met. During that time in 1974 and ‘75, people were coming in droves to take classes there with me and company member Bernadine Jennings and live piano/percussion by Hank Johnson. Mostly women, all African American and all with laser-focused attitudes on black consciousness in their appearance, their talk, their swagger, their commitment. We were all drenched in that love and the power of the change could manifest through the arts. Ntozake passed the audition. She was thrilled she had made it into the company but quickly realized she had instead been accepted as a scholarship student where she would clean floors and windows and take classes for free. Well, she did just that. She never missed a class and was always there with her friend Paula Moss. The two of them had traveled recently across the country from the Bay Area to dive into the arts scene in New York.

They had already explored Ntozake’s choreopoem format with some other artists in California. In fact, she had already titled her presentations for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf before coming back East.

Zake (the nickname her close friends called her) was always in the front of the dance class giving her all—pouring her whole being into every move. She was a dancer to her soul. Moving with confidence, clarity, great stamina, flexibility and she had a particular idiosyncratic way of allowing the movement to flow throughout her entire body through to the fingertips as if every move initiated from her heart. Unbeknownst to me, after class or on weekends Zake started presenting various versions of for colored girls… in clubs in NY with Paula and other dancers from class—almost like massaging it into greater being. One day someone showed me her poems in the form of a script. I said, “What!!!!! Ntozake wrote this?????!!!!! I can’t believe it! I know her as the quiet one, the modest one, the dancer who comes faithfully to every class and gives her all.” Her sister Ifa Bayeza, who also took classes at Sounds in Motion, was instrumental in connecting Zake with her friend, director Oz Scott who helped with bringing the poems into a script. Next thing I knew, Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf was taking off into the stratosphere. First to present it in a prominent theatrical venue was Woodie King, Jr. for New Federal Theatre, at Henry Street Settlement. Oz was at the director’s helm and Paula Moss was choreographer. After crowds were almost breaking down the doors there to see it at New Federal, Joseph Papp brought it to the Public Theater with the same huge crowds scrambling to get in and accolade after accolade rose up about this event that could not be categorized: a first, a revolution, a choreopoem!

In her extraordinary form of theatre, Ntozake’s choreopoem united poetry, dance and music on stage. Poems, in theatre, by a black woman who had the audacity to use language her own way. It was groundbreaking! She was totally unapologetic about anything she said. In this rare theatrical format, she and the other women spoke directly to the audience in poems about joys, their inner screams, their men in raw commentary, their beauty, their longings, their journeys, and the gritty underpinnings of life. Then Joe Papp took to it to Broadway. Wow!!!! It was devoured by the public! Ntozake was speaking the inner truth of a lot of black women and almost everyone, no matter what their background, was relating to it for its theatricality, for brilliant language, for capturing the epoch, for heart-stopping performances, for the human experience. It was so powerful and pervasive, even among individuals who were not previously theatre-goers, that it had the added notoriety of being publicly denounced by some black men who said the writer must hate men. There were even public debates about for colored girls… Along with this matter, some writers critiqued the text in this and Shange’s subsequent works. She responds:

“the man who thought i wrote with the intentions of outdoing in the acrobatic distortions of english was absolutely correct. i cant count the number of times i have viscerally wanted to attack deform n maim the language that i was taught to hate myself in/ the language that perpetuates the notions that cause pain to every black child/ as s/he learns to speak of the world and the ‘self’.” 1

As a performer she had a style of speaking, a cadence, which was like a dance—long tones, and a lot of fast tones like water flowing over rocks and always in an effortless “colored” tonality. After she left the Broadway production and returned from a trip to Europe, I saw her one winter evening. “Zake!” “Dianne!” We had a fond reunion. I remember she had on a huge magenta colored ankle-length down coat. I had never seen a down coat. She wore it with flair, like a super-star might wear a mink coat. Though she had always dressed unique afrique-chic, this was different. In my mind I said “Wow, Ntozake is a star now!” However, she could have been, but she never acted like one and she was sometimes confused when people treated her like a star. She was even somewhat shy in social settings with strangers. Oh, but she was confident in herself as a writer! Sometimes over the years she would call me all excited to see what I thought about a poem she had just written. I was swept away by her thoughts, her unexpected word-paintings, her commentary on life situations, her views on global politics or social issues, and her vulnerability in speaking about herself. Unlike a playwright who makes rewrites, edits and revisions, Ntozake’s poems come into the productions as they were birthed out of her. Replace it with another poem if that one does not work in that spot, but do not alter the poem.

for colored girls… became an international phenomenon. It swept the USA. It swept the globe. It was a force to be reckoned with. It is timeless. It has been performed continuously in professional, community and university theatres for its universal relevance and incomparable treasure as art expression. Several generations of female actors have honed their performance skills and been recognized for their greatness by appearing in for colored girls…

After the production’s initial success, Ntozake came right back to dance class. Everyone treated her and she treated everyone just like the dancer person she was before.

“i realized that I wrote differently after class/ that the movements propelled the language and/or the language propelled the dance/ it is possible to start a phrase with a word and end with a gesture/ that’s how I’ve lived my life/ that’s how I continue to study/ produce black art.” 2

Zake and I worked on many events together over more than 40 years. She was a brilliant collaborator. Besides me she worked with choreographers Mickey Davidson, Paula Moss, Dyane Harvey, writers Thulani Davis and Jessica Hagedorn, many visual artists and countless musician/composers. Ntozake’s world was broad and global. She carried on links especially to Spanish-speaking people in the Western Hemisphere who often experience oppression and nullification. Her works celebrate the liberation forces in those lands. She was cheered by the adoring crowds as she spoke fluent Spanish on her visit to Puerto Rico just a week before she passed away.

The poems kept streaming forth out of her, even after her physical health threatened her ability to write. But, no, the choreopoems for theatre and poetry for publication kept coming. Though she loved it, she never rested on the success of for colored girls… and she did not wait for opportunities, she created them. Events were in huge theatres, in small theatres, in clubs, lofts, on a bridge in Philly, a cemetery in Florida, a living room in Brooklyn, a video for one person. No venue was ever insignificant for Zake. One day in 2012 she called me and said, “Meet me this evening at this bar near 105th and Broadway. You will dance, Michael will play keyboards, I will read. I have two poems. You can pick which one you want when you get here.” We did it, it was a blast—maybe eight people in the audience!

I have been inspired by Ntozake Shange’s work and her friendship more than I can say. The opportunity to create dance for her choreopoems is priceless. The fearlessness in her expressions, the direct yet colorful way of revealing rare truths, her knowledge of world history, culture, society from the hidden to the everyday, her celebration of people—well known, little-known, or family or neighbors— with words you just want to hug. Her words in texture and meaning move me to create movement. Though she was one of my dearest friends, in the presence of her work I am a student. She was a veritable genius disguised as your reliable friend. She was both; so loyal to all of her artist friends who became like family. And so close to all her family: her parents and two sisters and brother, and daughter were always there cheering her and supporting her in the limelight and out of it.

As a poet, a playwright, a novelist, essayist, lecturer, teacher, Ntozake Shange has broken down barriers, opened up doors, opened up minds and hearts and committed individuals to action in so many ways. She inspires across genres, across generations, across causes, across race, across the street. I did not know Zake had passed until I was in a taxi in NYC reading texts that people had sent to me. As I was in shock, the Caribbean cab driver said, “Have a good evening.” I said, “It won’t be good. My friend just died, she was a writer.” “What did she write?” I said, “for colored girls.” He said, “Oh I saw the movie. Your friend is brilliant!”

In theatre Ntozake’s presence has paved the way for generations of Black female writers and all writers who could only be touched by her transformational work. Many of those playwrights have achieved places of honor in the theatre world. Her contributions to art and to society will not be forgotten and will live on through voices yet to come.

A week or so before Ntozake Shange died, she called and asked if I would be willing to create a wheelchair dance for her for a special production. It would be in 2022. I said, “Of course! That will be fun!”

Ntozake Shange (1948-2018) was best known for her Obie Award-winning play, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. A playwright, novelist, and poet, Shange originally joined the Dramatists Guild prior to 1995 and reinstated membership in 2008.

1. From the essay “my pen is a machete” in the book, lost in language and sound by Ntozake Shange.

2. From the poem “why i had to dance” in the book, lost in language and sound by Ntozake Shange

Photo of Dianne McIntyre
Dianne McIntyre

is regarded as an artistic pioneer, with an impressive career spanning four decades with choreography for dance, theatre, television, and film. A 2019 Dance/USA Honor Awardee and 2016 Doris Duke Artist Award recipient, her individualistic movement style reflects her affinity for cultural histories, personal narratives, and the boldness, nuances, discipline, and freedom in music and poetic text. She joined the Guild in 1997. www.diannemcintyre.com