Ntozake Shange still standing up for “colored girls”

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“I’m going to tell you a secret, but then you can tell everybody,” Ntozake Shange announced at her April 23 appearance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Center. “For colored girls is going to be [made into] a movie.” Shange’s appearance was part of the Givens Foundation for African American Literature’s NOMMO African American Authors Series.

The audience in the center’s Cowles Auditorium let out a cheer of surprise and joy at the news that Shange’s “seminal work,” as she called it in her own words, For colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, which was first performed on stage 35 years ago, is finally becoming a film. (An Emmy-nominated PBS television American Playhouse version of the play, which starred Shange, Lynn Whitfield and Alfre Woodard, was broadcast in 1982 and is available on DVD.)

Furthermore, Shange confirmed that three African American actresses had “signed contracts” confirming that they would star in the upcoming film: Oscar winner Halle Berry, Oscar nominee Angela Bassett, and Grammy winning singer-turned-actor Jill Scott. The excited audience loudly gasped as Shange said each of the actresses’ names.

She made her announcement about For colored girls being made into a film during an open dialogue with local writer and U of M professor Alexs Pate, who during his introduction of Shange recalled seeing the play when it was on Broadway in 1976 — and seeing and hearing men angrily walk out on the play, specifically during the climatic poem/scene “a nite with beau willie brown,” in which one of the seven women who form the cast of the play tells of a man who commits an act of unspeakable violence against his own children to spite their mother who rejects him.

Shange continues to write of the harsh realities of violence against women and children, as she demonstrated with one of the poems she spent the first half-hour of her appearance reading. The poem, read with a companion, actor-writer-director Claude E. Sloan Jr., was inspired by a story she read in the New York Times.

“Every three minutes, a woman is beaten/Every five minutes, a woman is raped/Every 10 minutes, a little girl is molested,” Sloan’s hard, deep voice declared. To this, Shange added verses such as, “I rode the subway today/I sat next to an old man who may have beaten his old wife three minutes ago, or three days…/I sat there because the young man on the train might beat some young woman today or tomorrow…” as Sloan repeated phrases similar to the opening: “Every three minutes, it happens… Every three minutes… every five minutes… every 10 minutes…”

“…Before I ride a subway, buy a paper, drink coffee, I must know/Have you hurt a woman today?” Shange demanded. “Did you beat a woman today?/Throw a child across a road?/Are a little girl’s panties in your pocket?/Did you beat a child today?…”

With For colored girls, Shange told Pate, “I tried to do some things with language, I tried to do some things with relationships between men and women and women and women. And I tried to place a woman of color in the universe, which we very often are not the center of. But if we are women of color, we are the center of the universe, and I thought somebody should address that.”

Shange has written over a dozen plays and has over a dozen collections of poetry, including Nappy Edges. She also has written a number of novels, including Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Liliane and Betsey Brown; Pate and Shange discussed these three novels as part of Shange’s continuing history of centering her work around strong Black women characters.

“I have to create a world around [women of color in books, plays and poems],” Shange affirmed, “so that somebody who reads English somewhere can feel what it’s like to be a woman of color.”

Stephani Booker welcomes reader responses to sbooker@spokesman-recorder.com.

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