Noted American poet, performance artist, playwright, and novelist Ntozake Shange arrives at the Arts Council of Princeton on Wednesday, November 15, for a free reading from her new book, “Wild Beauty: New and Selected Poems of Ntozake Shange.”
Shange’s appearance is significant. She is the ground-breaking writer whose 1975 “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” electrified Broadway audiences with its blend of poetry, dance, music, spoken word, and drama. Yet more importantly, her “choreopoem” recognized the world of overlooked women who lived with abuse, oppression, and disappointment. The New York Times called Shange “a pioneer in terms of her subject matter: the fury of black women at their double subjugation in white male America.”
Since then she has been lionized for a literary daring that, according to one literary critic, “lets go with verbal runs and trills, mixes in syncopations, spins out evocative hanging phrases, variations on themes and refrains.” The result has been more than a dozen stage works, nearly 20 books of poetry, and six novels. Of her penchant for using lower-case letters, slashes, and innovative spelling, Shange says she “reflects language as I hear it. The structure is connected to the music I hear beneath the words.”
Another significance: her appearance is a homecoming of sorts. Shange was born Paulette Williams in Trenton. Her father was Dr. Paul Williams. Her mother, Eloise, was a college professor and psychiatric social worker. Both were involved with cultural and social activities and hosted such noted cultural leaders as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and W.E.B. DuBois as house guests.
Shange — whose African name translates as “she who brings her own things” and “walks like a lion” — accompanied her family to stays in St. Louis and Sampson Air Force Base in Geneva, New York, before returning to Mercer County. She then left to attend Barnard College and UCLA, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in American studies. In 1990 Shange returned to Princeton to collaborate with McCarter Theater artistic director Emily Mann on a stage version of the novel “Betsey Brown.”
And finally, Shange’s visit represents her determination to return to writing and presenting after a 2004 stroke and resulting neurological problems affecting mobility, speech, and writing. Then, as she relates in the new book, “A poem romanced around my head. I tried to write it but the pencil hurt my fingers and my hands slipped off the iPad. The only thing left was the computer. But my fingers had not been strong enough to press the keys. I tried anyway. And a poem came out. This was my miracle.”
Ntozake Shange, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Wednesday, November 15, 7 p.m. Free. Tickets required. Visit the Community Stage Link at www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.