Ntozake Shange, the poet and playwright behind For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, died in her sleep Saturday morning at the age of 70, the Star Tribune reports. Her sister, playwright Ifa Bayeza, confirmed the news and paid tribute to Shange’s legacy:
Zake was a woman of extravagance and flourish, and she left quickly without suffering. It’s a huge loss for the world. I don’t think there’s a day on the planet when there’s not a young woman who discovers herself through the words of my sister.
Shange, a native of Trenton, New Jersey, was born Paulette Williams, and later adopted the Xhosa and Zulu name Ntozake Shange. Her first name means “She who comes with her own things” in Xhosa, while her surname means “who walks with lions” in Zulu. (In 1994, she told the New York Times that “as a feminist, I thought it was ridiculous to be named after a boy.”) Her father, Dr. Paul Williams, was a prominent physician; her mother was a social worker. Shange’s family left New Jersey for St. Louis, Missouri just in time for Shange to be there for the integration of the local schools, a formative experience, but returned to New Jersey before graduating high school. From there, she attended Barnard and got a Masters in American Studies at the University of Southern California. In 1974, while teaching at Sonoma State, she staged the first performance of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, the work she would ultimately be best known for. A mixture of poetry, dance, and theater, it was structurally radical enough that Shange coined her own word, choreopoem, to describe it.
In 1975, Shange moved to New York City to stage For Colored Girls … there. After productions at Studio Rivbea and a bar on Third Street called Demonte’s, Shange put the show on at the Henry Street Settlement Living Arts Center for twelve free performances, “not nearly enough for the hundreds of theatregoers that were turned away,” according to the New York Amsterdam News. Off-Broadway and Broadway productions followed, earning Shange a Tony nomination for Best Play in 1977. Over the ensuing years, the play’s celebration of black sisterhood in the face of racial and sexual oppression made For Colored Girls … a touchstone for black women and a part of the modern theatrical canon. It was produced for television on American Playhouse in 1982, and in 2010, Tyler Perry adapted it for film.
Although Shange’s later work didn’t receive the same acclaim as For Colored Girls …, she remained an astonishingly prolific writer, publishing novels, plays and poems over the ensuing years, most recently 2017’s Wild Beauty: New and Selected Poems. In 1993 she reflected on her legacy in an interview with Poets and Writers Magazine:
Part of what I do is naming—naming and documenting. I mean this very seriously. The documentation of the culture that I live in. Is it more exciting to read the plans of the Pyramid of the Moon in Mexico City that the Aztecs built, or is it more exciting to read love poems by the Aztecs translated from their language? Obviously, for intimacy with these people, we want the love poems. The plans are wonderful. Yes, I want to see where they walked when they wrote them, but I would really rather hear the voices of the people. In that sense, I hope I can contribute to a body of literature that will survive us and give us a greater sense of depth and preciousness to what we’ve managed to create as a people. When I was a youngster, the wealth of who we were was unspoken and unrecognized. I spent a great deal of my adult life unearthing this for me as well as for everybody else.
Shange is survived by her sister, her daughter, and her granddaughter.