William & Mary

Painting and performing the words of Ntozake Shange

  • Ntozake Shange:
    Ntozake Shange:  The poet, playwright, performer and activist talks with theatre faculty and students during a lunchtime meeting Nov. 5.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Theatre talk:
    Theatre talk:  The lunch meeting was one of several events that Ntozake Shange participated in while visiting William & Mary for the second time.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Artisia Green:
    Artisia Green:  The associate professor of theatre organized the visit, which was sponsored by several departments and programs at William & Mary.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Artisia Green was a senior at William & Mary, prepping for a production of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf,” when a visit by the choreopoem’s author changed Green’s life.

Now an associate professor of theatre and Africana studies at the university, Green gave her own students the opportunity to receive similar inspiration from Ntozake Shange during her visit to campus Nov. 5-6. The poet, playwright, performer and activist participated in a number of discussions with students and faculty, visited classes and attended a staged reading of her work in Andrews Hall Friday night.

{{youtube:medium:left|ecBmESQUupM, In class with Ntozake Shange}}

During the Friday night event, “My Job as an Artist is to Say What I See: Painting the Words of Ntozake Shange Onstage,” students read portions of Shange’s wide range of works, which have included plays, poems, novels and choreoessay collections such as 2011’s autobiographical “Lost in Language and Sound: or, How I found My Way to the Arts.”

As the students read – and transitioned between readings with music, dance or other choreography – three local artists painted at the corners of the stage, taking inspiration from the spoken words to transform blank canvases into vibrant pieces of art.

At the conclusion of the performance, the students shared with the audience what they had learned in preparing for the staged reading.

“I never had the opportunity to work on and perform pieces by women from the same background – African-American women,” said one student. “That’s something I’ve never been able to experience, to perform and work with and embody and try to figure out, so that was a very exciting journey for me.”

Another student said that she learned that “you can read something a certain way and feel like you really understand it and know what it is, and then something comes along and your realize your whole perception has been completely wrong,” alluding to her initial misinterpretation of one of Shange’s works. However, the student received clarification directly from the source Thursday night during a workshop rehearsal with Shange.

In a Q&A following the staged reading, Shange said that such misinterpretations are not rare.

“Very often, a reader will bring his or her own experience to a poem, and it will totally distort the poem or contort it or deform it or color it in a way that the poet never intended but couldn’t stop from happening,” she said. “Luckily, I had an intervention.”

Q&A with Shange

One of the local artists, VCU student Mahari Chabwera, asked Shange whether she wrote for herself or with her audience in mind.

“I make work for myself in hopes that others will enjoy it or share in it at some point in time because if I made it for myself, you would never have heard of me and I’d be home by myself and my books poetry,” Shange said.

“I have friends like that who write for themselves, and they never read it out loud and they don’t publish,” she said. “I think two things about that: I think they’re, one, either really selfish, or I think, second, they’re really cowardly because I never understood using something that you partake of like language and hoarding it.”

{{youtube:medium:left|rMxkl1gXOPI, Painting the words of Ntozake Shange}}

Shange added that when she writes, she is aware of the audience, “but not like they’re breathing down my neck.”

“Once I’ve written the poem and had the poem then the poem can go and be with other people, and I don’t care. It’s gone, and I can let it go,” she said. “I don’t get real upset if people misinterpret work, for instance, because I can’t be there to control it. It’s not my job to control it. My job was to put it there and whatever they get from it, they get from it, and if they got it wrong, they got it wrong. But I did my best and that’s all I can ask from myself.”

Other questions from the audience focused on the influence of musician Nina Simone on her work (“I would give her a parenting role in my life of a kind”), and Shange’s incorporation of movement in her writing process.

“I do sweat when I write,” she said.

“[Writing] has always been a physical activity for me, and somebody was reminding me that I used to dance when I wrote.”

Another question from the audience focused on whether Shange would like to be thought of as a black poet or just a poet.

“You’re disturbing me,” she said. “I can’t separate myself from being black and female at the same time. It’s psychologically impossible for me to understand the world outside of my race or gender. To deny either would be paramount to committing suicide.”

Immeasurable influence

Hermine Pinson, associate professor of English, was one of several faculty members who attended the event. During the Q&A, she commended the students for representing Shange’s wide range of work so well.

“One of my favorites that gets my heart is the one, ‘To a Young Poet,’ because – as Ntozake is my friend, my mentor, my colleague – I felt her speaking to me,” Pinson said. “I know Ntozake has influenced countless poets and brought them out to know themselves.”

At the end of the event, representatives with the Nu Chi chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. presented her with a gift to mark Shange’s status as an honorary member of the sorority.

Green closed the evening by thanking Shange for returning to William & Mary nearly 16 years after affecting Green so deeply by such a visit.

“I’ve come full circle being able to provide this opportunity for my current students,” Green said. “I hope it has been a life-changing one. ‘For Colored Girls’ was life-changing for me. I was eighteen when I finally understood the gift my Nana placed in my hands five years prior. My grandmother, in introducing me to the emotional textures of a developing woman’s life (and a colored woman at that), was offering me an opportunity to find balance. ‘For Colored Girls’ was to compliment my Sweet Valley High and Nancy Drew Mystery series. ‘For Colored Girls’ was a mirror, a bible to which I could always return to, and the seed of my interests in theatre, ritual, and African aesthetics.

“Meeting Ntozake for the first time was also life-changing. You were one of two transgressive black women in the academy and the arts, Alexis DeVeaux being the other, whom I had met at the transition of my senior year. You gave me hope about the force I could become and I am very, very grateful that you were able to come and spend these two days with us so that we could learn from you and be inspired.”