Trenton's Finest: Ntozake Shange

As we close out the last day of Women’s History Month we pay tribute to Trenton native playwright, poet and author, Ntozake Shange, who made a profound impact on women and the arts.

Shange was born Paulette Williams on October 18, 1948, in Trenton, New Jersey to an upper middle class African American family who encouraged her artistic expression as a child. Her father, Paul T. Williams, was an air force surgeon and her mother, Eloise Williams, was an educator and a psychiatric social worker. Her parents regularly entertained Black luminaries, such as W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, and Dizzy Gillespie at their family home. In 1956, Shange's family moved to St. Louis, Missouri where she attended a non-segregated school and received a "gifted" education. When her family moved back to New Jersey, they settled in Lawrence Township, and Shange attended Trenton Central High where she graduated in 1966.

Shange earned a Bachelor of Science degree in American Studies from Barnard College in 1970 and went on to pursue her masters at the University of California, where she met her tribe of fellow feminists, writers, and intellectuals. In 1971 Shange decided to change her name from Paulette Williams after a severe bout of depression and isolation to Ntozake which, stands for “she who comes with her own things” and Shange which means “who walks like a lion” in Zulu.

Shange is best known for writing For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, a 20-part choreopoem—a term­­–Shange coined—to describe her artistic style of combining poetry, music, drama, and dance. For Colored Girls… was initially produced Off-Broadway in 1975 at the New Federal Theatre in New York City before premiering on Broadway at the Booth Theater in 1976. The storyline entails seven women who have endured oppression in a sexist and immensely racist community. The choreopoem won the Obie Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award and the AUDELCO Award. The critically-acclaimed Broadway hit would later be adapted into For Colored Girls, a 2010 film produced by Tyler Perry starring Whooppi Goldberg, Janet Jackson, and Phylicia Rashad. The Broadway latest revival directed and choreographed by Tony Award nominee, Camille A. Brown, premiers on April 1st, at the Booth Theater.

New York Times writer Mel Gusso said, “Miss Shange was a pioneer in terms of her subject matter: the fury of Black women at their double subjugation in white male America.” Shange’s message in her work displays the empowerment of ultimately being seen and heard. She was able to inspire many people with her raw and authentic storytelling. Among her notable accomplishments, Shange is also credited as being a founding poet of the legendary Nuyorican Poetry Café.

She had one child named, Savannah Thulani Eloisa, who resides in Oakland, California. Throughout the span of her career, Shange was an Emmy, Grammy and Tony Award nominee and her many novels, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (1982), Liliane (1994), and Betsey Brown (1985), about an African-American girl runaway and stage plays will forever leave a legacy of being a fierce advocate for women.

Ntozake Shange greets visitors in 2017 at the "I Found God in Me" exhibit in Newark

It is safe to say women have discovered themselves through her storytelling. Through her works she received numerous accolades including the Mademoiselle Award, Frank Silvera Writers Workshop Award, 1978, Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry, 1981, Medal of Excellence, Columbia University in 1981 among many others.

Shange was able to craft stories in a thought-provoking, entertaining way. In what may be one of her last interviews before she passed away in 2018, Shange told the Real News Network, "The more we offer our girls in terms of experiences that are not familiar to them, the more broader and capable adults they will be."

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