In the early 80s I discovered Maya Angleou. As a white, male, suburbanite who felt driven to write - I sought writers outside of my experience. I embraced Angelou. Alongside James Joyce & Saint Augustine - Angelou remains among my greatest influences. She's the quintessential writer. She combined poetry and prose and wedded her words and her images with unmatched parallelism. She's so well-written. And I lapped at her well. I thirsted for her words.
Through Angelou I found Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Ntozake Shange. Shange stood alone on the spectrum of poet as playwright. Yes, you can place Lorraine Hansberry on that spectrum. Yet Hansberry wasn't a poet; she was a purist. She wrote pure truth. Poetry is passion through a prism of prose. Its point of view is diffused and sheds light on effusive emotions.
What distinguished Ntozake Shange is that she combined poetry, dance, and performance art and she fashioned a liner plot. In many ways she invented pointillistic playwriting. Shange is to theatre what Seurat is to canvases. She created her seen and she created scenes. She defined the role of black woman for her generation as Angelou had defined herself as a boomer. Shange put poetry in the mouths of the character actors. Harvey Fierstein did much the same thing in Torch Song Trilogy. He took the comic asides and put the secondary character on the center of the stage.
I will not see the new Tyler Perry's filmed adaptation of Shange's landmark piece, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Shange's piece is performance art. I recall the American Playhouse performance of her piece on PBS in the early 80s. It captured her moment and her time.
Shange's work remains a defining moment in American theater. Offering her art in any other way is akin to seeing Seurat through a View-Master. And anyone who has rimmed his eyes with hardened plastic knows he won't have a masterful view.
Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf is a masterpiece; a master pieced together poetry, and dance, and performance art, and she breathed life into an entire palette of passion.