Ntozake Shange, 1948–2018
October 29, 2018
On October 27, 2018, the innovative and pioneering poet and playwright Ntozake Shange passed away at an assisted-living community in Bowie, Maryland. She was seventy years old.
As the author of nearly fifty plays, novels, children’s books, and poetry and essay collections, Shange established herself as a distinctive and uncompromising voice in American letters. Her many works address themes of racial inequality, women’s empowerment, domestic abuse, and self respect. Her works champion black women and girls, and have inspired generations.
Shange debuted her highly influential play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf” in 1976. Inspired by the work of poet Judy Grahn, the play combined poetry, dance, and jazz and consisted of monologues in verse concerning the trauma and abuse of black women. The play was admired by critics and won an Obie Award for its production at the Public Theater. It then moved on to Broadway.
The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage told the New York Times that the play “definitely spoke to a generation of young women who didn’t feel invited into a theater space, who suddenly saw representation of themselves in a very honest way, and understood that they could occupy that space for the first time.”
In addition to plays, Shange wrote many poetry collections, including From Okra to Greens, A Daughter’s Geography, and Three Pieces, which was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her other works include the novel Some Sing, Some Cry, co-written with her sister Ifa Bayeza, and the children’s books Coretta Scott and Ellington Was Not a Street. She was awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, as well as a Pushcart Prize.
Born Paulette Williams, she adopted, from the Zulu dialect of Xhosa, the first name Ntozake, which means “she who comes with her own things,” and the surname Shange, meaning “one who walks like a lion,” as a graduate student in the early 1970s. In addition to her daughter Savannah, Shange is survived by her two sisters, brother, and granddaughter.
Image Credit: Adgar Cowans/Courtesy of Simon & Schuster