Remembering Ntozake Shange (1948-2018), the Black Romantic, and Community Sacrifice

I never thought romance was possible in my life. But it happened much later in my late twenties. When I think about it, both times romance happened in a serious and meaningful and memorable way were times that I saw a thoughtful production of Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.” The first time I saw a 2008 production was at Temple University in North Philadelphia: this production was directed by Jamila Capitman and Heather Thomas.
This was one of the few play performances that I could not get enough of. I had to see it as often as possible. Below are images of the program from this 2008 production. Pardon the water damage. I thank Jamila for recognizing my technical support.

They were so inspired after reading and performing this play, they co-wrote a choreopoem set in the twenty first century I saw called “Love, Queens Who Suffer From Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

Ms. Shange’s work is life changing. The second time I saw this production was a 2013 production at the Community Education Center in West Philadelphia. This production was directed by Zuhairah McGill.

I also saw a 2014 production of her 1979 play “a photograph: lovers in motion,” produced by the Negro Ensemble Company at the Signature Theater and directed by Ifa Bayeza. Both times I saw “for colored girls” framed the beginning of my understanding of myself as a sexual being. The play is about women, but as a man, I was emotionally connected to Shange’s characters.

A romantic being capable of sex and a sexual being capable of romance. The two different productions had different directors and emphasized two different messages, however both plays affirmed my total identities. Both productions taught me about the reality of romantic love and the incredible rush of intense sexual attraction, as well as the pain that sometimes accompanies it. When I listen to the words of Shange’s performance and remember how they were performed, two key parts stuck out to me, one the lady in brown’s monologue learning Toussaint. That monologue is a beautiful romance for me. The lady in orange’s mention of the moon was most prominent because I have a prominent memory of moonlight on my most satisfying lover’s face.

Shange’s work glorifies a kind of intellectual companionship I have never seen performed before, that I experienced the year I saw the second production of this play. Although the lady in brown of the first performance was more memorable. Probably the most memorable line is “and saturday night / and saturday night.” I still remember that line and the moment the first ensemble I saw performed it. Chills went through my spine, because despite all the hardships these women faced, they still celebrated their beauty and their perseverance.

The direction of this first ensemble was most memorable.

Ms. Shange transitioned to the ancestral spiritual realm on the same day of the year that Ms. Ruby Dee transitioned from the spiritual to the earthly realm on October 27th. In this part of the earth’s revolution around the sun, the Earth is in the astrological sun sign of Scorpio which represents the element of water and is a fixed sign. Ms. Shange’s work is a drama that sheds light on the difficulties of maintaining the myth of the Black bourgeoisie in an imperialist economy. Lorraine Hansberry wrote that it is the duty of the Black writer to show the myth of the Black bourgeoisie, and Ntozake Shange does this in her description of the relationship between Crystal and Beau Willie in the monologue of the lady in red at the end. As her monologue reveals, Beau Willie wants Crystal to marry her and when she refuses, he murders their two children. As haunting as this monologue is, Shange is showing the difficulty of the Black family thriving in a deindustrialized economy. As James V. Hatch and Ted Shine write “Shange does not ask us to forgive Beau Willie, but she does want us to understand and judge him in terms of the conditions that shaped him.” The astrological season of Scorpio is for me associated with sacrifice for the survival of the community. Shange is very clear that certain children’s lives must be sacrificed in order to keep the community intact. Shange is commenting on the incompatibility of the imperial economy and an emotionally and intellectually nurturing Black family. She forces the reader to pay attention to the sacrifices the community must make to survive, as painful as they are to witness. Similar to the role of Shadrach in Toni Morrison’s novel Sula. In the process of showing this haunting sacrifice, Shange shows how for those who served in imperial wars, and are trying to earn a living wage, the Black bourgeoisie is, in fact, a myth. She wants us to keep in mind how unemployment makes the survival of the Black family most difficult. She shows how romance is based on love for the Black self-determination, as the lady in brown says: “no tellin what spirits we cd move / down by the river”

Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.