Ntozake Shange was born Paulette L. Williams on October 8, 1948, in Trenton, New Jersey. She was born into prominence. Her father, Paul, was an Air Force surgeon and her mother, Eloise, was an educator and psychiatric social worker. Her parents encouraged her interest in the arts, particularly, her interest in poetry.
While still living in Trenton, Williams and her younger sister (now the famed playwright Ifa Bayeza) would attend poetry readings. In 1956 when Williams was just eight years old, the Williams family moved to St. Louis, Missouri. The Brown v. Board of Education court decision had just been made which placed Williams at the forefront of desegregation.
Like many after her, Williams and her family were under the false pretenses that she would be bused to a non-segregated school in order to be placed in a “gifted” class. She was, in fact, desegregating the once-all-White school. As a result, she was often the victim of racism and harassment.
Williams returned to New Jersey and attended Morristown High School, where she ultimately graduated from. In 1966, Williams enrolled in courses at Barnard College in New York City. She graduated with her BA in American Studies and went on to earn her MA in the same subject from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She graduated in 1973.
In her freshman year of college, Williams married. The marriage did not last long and she spiraled into a deep depression. She became bitter and alienated, leading to her attempted suicide. She ultimately learned to deal with her depression and as a result, she changed her name to Ntozake Shange.
Ntozake means, “She who has her own things” and Shange means, “He/she who walks/lives with lions.” In Xhosa, the literal meaning of Ntozake is, “Things that belong to her.” In Zulu, the literal meaning of Shange is, “The lion’s pride.”
Shange moved back to New York in 1975. She co-founded the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York. Later that year, her first play, ‘for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf,’ was produced. The collection of poems-turned play was produced off-Broadway and eventually made its way to Broadway.
Shange’s play won several awards. She then adapted her play into a book that was published in 1977. And in 2010, her play was adapted into a film, titled ‘For Colored Girls,’ that was directed by Tyler Perry.
She described her work as ‘choreopoem,’ a form of storytelling that does not adhere to Western standards but instead elicits certain emotions from the audience through various elements of expression, including singing, dancing, poetry, etc.
In addition to her award-winning play as aforementioned, Shange went on to write several more plays, children’s books, prose, essays, and novels. Honored with awards and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, 69-year-old Ntozake Shange continues to write while living in Brooklyn, New York.
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