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The Off-“Beat” Rhythms of Self-Expression in the Typography and Verse of Ntozake Shange

Frank Fury

Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf (subsequently for colored girls) participates in what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. calls the process of “rhetorical self-definition.”[1] In other words, her text develops a unique structure of poetic form that contributes to its own interpretive significance and emotional effect. An analysis of the visual form of Shange’s choreopoem—an invented genre predicated upon its existence as a performative and hence fluid text—produces a critical awareness of the writer’s articulation of her own sense of individual and communal identity. Through technical innovations in typography and verse, Shange defines an individual poetics that negotiates the conflict between her status as an African American and an African-American poet. Her experimentation in the visual form of poetry in for colored girls, which includes a use of vernacular language and an overt challenge to the traditional conventions of the genre (both within poetry and drama), becomes the vehicle for expressing the affirmation of her blackness and the centrality of the articulation of identity to her art.

Shange uses an uncommon visual form to evoke a specific emotion in the various poems of for colored girls. In “no assistance,” for example, the lady in red uses a mixed catalogue of number symbols and words describing numbers to remind her lover that he has truly been of “no assistance” in maintaining their relationship:

without any assistance or guidance from you
i have loved you assiduously for 8 months 2 wks & a day
i have been stood up four times
i’ve left 7 packages on yr doorstep
forty poems 2 plants & 3 handmade notecards i left
town so i cd send to you have been no help to me
on my job
you call at 3:00 in the morning on weekdays
so i cd drive 27½ miles cross the bay before i go to work
charmin charmin
but you are of no assistance [2]

The list seems to go on and on in a unique structure of alternating long and short verse lines suggestive of the lady’s exasperation at her unrequited love. The dizzying array of numbers evokes both comic and heartrending feelings in the compulsive relentlessness of its cataloguing. One cannot help but pity the lady yet at the same time find humor in the exactness of her memory. Indeed, Deborah Geis cites “no assistance” as an example of Shange’s consciousness of the power of humor to exorcise feelings of tormented vulnerability. Geis sees Shange’s humor as a “mask” for her characters, which becomes “a way of channelling the fear and anger they experience into the mode of performance.”[3] P. Jane Splawn has written of the historical significance of the mask trope in the play, citing its heritage in the works of earlier major African American writers such as Paul Laurence Dunbar (“We Wear the Mask”), Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison; Splawn argues that the mask symbol provides a degree of subversive power in its ability to hide emotion and aggregate often incongruous emotions.[4] The itemising of numbers and number symbols in “no assistance” is thus an instance of the manner in which Shange challenges readers with poetry that has the potential to evoke and also meld antithetical feelings of hilarity and disgust. Shange’s impressive achievement is to force the reader to realise that such contrasting emotions may come from the same experience.

Shange’s most emotionally provocative writing in for colored girls, however, involves an innovation of generic form. Shange’s use of the term “choreopoem” to describe the genre in which she writes is the first sign of the experimentation that for colored girls embodies. Traditional verse poetry, in other words, is not sufficient to capture Shange’s conception of her unique sense of identity. The need for physical, as well as verbal, expression to fully realise one’s emotional state manifests itself in the ceremonies of dance incorporated into the performance of the text. The dance rituals of the text signify just one of the elements of the text that transcends the traditional borders of literary genre. In the process, the rituals effectively liberate Shange’s text from the suffocating conventions of the Western, male-dominated poetic legacy.

Barbara Frey Waxman sees the importance of dance in female, African-American literature as both an actual ritual and a figurative trope for representing the freedom of ethnic and feminist expression.[5] She contends that the burgeoning African-American female writer has “turned to dance as a thematic or metaphoric motif for empowerment and self-proclamation, as well as for literary sisterhood.”[6] Waxman also acknowledges that African American women authors “not only use themes and metaphors of dance, but also adopt literally the African belief in the power of dance to dissolve boundaries: they write texts which dissolve literary borders, generic boundaries.”[7] The process by which Shange frees her text not only from the white patriarchal literary tradition but also from the influence of early African-American male writers is the process by which she achieves a “rhetorical self-definition” for both her text and herself. In this way, Shange re-creates her identity as an African-American female through the unique new genre of the choreopoem.

One of the primary verse techniques that Shange uses to achieve a liberating rhetorical self-definition is the chant ritual. In “no more love poems #4” – not coincidentally a title that eschews a generic tradition of love poetry – each of the different “colored” ladies begins a chant in which the rest of the cast joins. The ladies respond to the lady in yellow’s lament that her love is “too delicate to have thrown back on my face” (45). The ladies’ repetitive responses modify this phrase, while each adds her own adjective to build on “delicate”:

everyone (but started by the lady in brown)
and beautiful
and beautiful
and beautiful
everyone (but started by the lady in purple)
oh sanctified
oh sanctified
oh sanctified (48)

The chant continues on with each lady getting a turn and an opportunity to lead the chorus, thereby transforming each character into an artist figure who achieves self-expression in her ability to verbalise her experience. Additionally, the chant form unites the ladies in their agony, initiating a cathartic process by which they release themselves from the pain of their love relationships while rhetorically liberating themselves of the oppressive tradition of the genre of love poetry.

Chant is a crucial dramaturgical and poetic feature of Shange’s oeuvre. Kimberly Benston sees Shange’s and other African-American women writers’ use of chant in theatre and poetry as a “movement away from European-American structures and toward African-rooted ones in terms of the shift from mimesis/drama to methexis/ritual.”[8] Benston argues further that “not only does the ritual create a sense of community, but it also breaks down the barriers that have traditionally existed between the performers and the spectators.”[9] Ritual not only allows Shange to innovate rhetorically, thus removing her text from the hegemonic influence of “European-American structures” of conventional drama, but it also creates a sense of community in the sharing of the ladies’ awareness of pain and their feelings of dislocation.

Painful emotions are especially on the minds of the ladies, evidenced in the fact that the one descriptive word that is chanted more often than any other word is “complicated.” Whereas the other words are repeated three times, “complicated” is repeated eight times. It is the only potentially negative word used by the ladies, yet, by its inclusion as the final chant of the ritual, it offers the ladies the opportunity for communal catharsis, which ultimately does occur as confirmed in the ensuing stage directions: “The dance reaches a climax and all of the ladies fall out tired, but full of life and togetherness” (49). The “togetherness” that is the result of the ladies’ cathartic moment underscores Shange’s utilisation of a feminist poetics that is realised in the visual form of the community-creating chant. Splawn provides an historical context for Shange’s use of ritual in for colored girls:

Through her use of chanting, and various other forms of ritualized enactments, she presents religious and cultural values of the African Diaspora, many of which have traditionally not been seen as drama.[10]

Communal ritual, Shange implies, is essential to the African-American woman’s sense of identity that is buttressed by her membership in a larger, supportive community.

“no more love poems #4” is also notable for its use of an improvisational technique highly reminiscent of a musical jazz form. In traditional jazz, a basic melodic figure acts as the springboard for the artist’s creative sensibility to explore and test generic boundaries through improvisation. Shange performs such a jazz-like improvisation in “no more love poems #4” in her rendering of the repeated phrase of “my love is too ‘_________’ to have thrown back in my face” (46). The improvisation occurs when the ladies’ insert a word into the ‘blank’ of the basic figure to explore, much like a jazz musician would, their unique emotions of the moment. Shange’s typography is such that the repetitions of the phrase are in exact alignment, emphasising even further the ladies’ improvisation in their substitution of the adjective of their choice. The inventiveness of this section of the text, in addition, emphasises again the communal consciousness of the ladies, and fittingly leads into the ritualistic chants that allow them to collapse in togetherness. Thus, Shange’s text becomes as vividly improvisational as a live performance of her choreopoem would be.

Shange develops an artistic persona intimately connected to her racial and gender identity through her use of the vernacular language of the African-American community. As a creator of the medium of language and a seeker of an appropriate voice to speak her racial self, Shange developed a unique voice that draws from the cultural nuances of her life and verbalises the painful experience of living as a female African American. In order for her to convey sincerely the conditions of her experience – and the experiences of women like her – she uses an intensely expressive vernacular. Geis identifies the necessity for Shange’s text to capture the orality and aurality of the “voice” of the African-American female which “refuses and transcends categorization”. Geis says:

Her works articulate the connection between the double “marginalized” social position of the black woman and the need to invent and appropriate a language with which to articulate a self.[11]

Olga Barrios argues that Shange’s use of the vernacular in a theatrical setting places her in a larger social context: the trend begun by the Black Theater Movement of the 1960s. The Black Theater Movement, Barrios suggests, is an illustration of black playwrights—especially black female playwrights such as Adrienne Kennedy, Aishah Rahman, and Alexis de Veaux—“developing a black aesthetics apart from Western parameters.”[12] Barrios argues further that

following the aesthetic concerns and artistic manifestations of the Black Theater Movement of the 1960s, African American women began a search to find their own voices within their communities.[13]

The physical appearance of the text of for colored girls thus represents a manifestation of Shange’s transmission of the oral culture of the African-American community in which she lives and an implicit participation in African-American writers’ movement away from a Western—and hence potentially oppressive—aesthetic tradition.

The most striking and effective example of Shange’s melding of the black vernacular with an overt expression of identity is “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff” (subsequently “somebody almost walked off”). It is particularly important to experience the familiarity of Shange’s “verbal” language in “somebody almost walked off…,” for, in this poem, Shange establishes a remarkably strong persona that champions her identity as a possessor of voice and “stuff”:

somebody almost run off wit alla my stuff/
& i didnt bring anythin but the kick & sway of it
the perfect ass for my man & none of it is theirs
this is mine/ ntozake ‘her own things’ / that’s my name/
now give me my stuff / i see ya hidin my laugh / & how i
sit wif my legs open sometimes / to give my crotch
some sunlight / & there goes my love my toes my chewed
up finger nails / niggah / i want my stuff back /
my rhythms & my voice / open my mouth / & let me talk ya
outta / throwin my shit in the sewar (50)

Shange appropriates the traditionally ambiguous word “stuff” to act as a term signifying everything that comprises the identity of an African-American woman. “Ntozake,” which she proudly claims as “my name” means “she who comes with her own things.” Therefore, her stuff – including her “perfect ass,” her “laugh,” her “love,” her “rhythms,” her “voice,” and her “shit” – consists of everything that makes Ntozake the person she is. If someone steals her “stuff,” then someone deprives her of her identity.

Shange’s intentional misspelling of words is actually a brilliant communication of the aural quality of her voice. Substituting “wit” for “with,” “ya” for “you,” “outta” for “out of,” and “niggah” for “nigger” are all manifestations of the “speakerliness” of Shange’s text, a quality that allows her to capture the essence of communication within the African-American community. In the introduction to The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism, Henry Louis Gates Jr. argues for the centrality of the black vernacular to a critical and theoretical understanding of what he calls the “Afro-American literary tradition.”[14] Gates encourages an appreciation of the rich texture and genuine artistry of the textual black vernacular, and he contends that the black vernacular has taken on “the singular role as the black person’s ultimate sign of difference, a blackness of the tongue.”[15] According to Gates’s hypothesis, the vernacular of “somebody almost walked off,” not to mention the rest of for colored girls, becomes Shange’s linguistic and artistic sign of difference from the Western traditions of poetic convention. The vernacular storytelling of for colored girlsis what allows it to establish its own measure of artistic value. “Stuff,” for example, which may or may not have any real discursive value in the Western tradition of standard English, takes on enormous importance to the very identity of the lady in green.

In her use of vernacular, Shange seems to state that African-American women can usurp the linguistic power historically wielded only by male poets. The lady in green’s vernacular monologue, in other words, allows her to speak confidently in the language in which she feels most comfortable, thereby allowing her to say unabashedly, “open my mouth / & let me talk.”[16] Barrios’s contention is that the preceding line exemplifies the larger commentary that Shange makes regarding the centrality of the African American female voice to self-affirmation; “crossing the boundary from silence to speech” is fundamental to confirming the integrity of the self and, as such, the larger project of for colored girls involves recuperating the self via a recuperation of voice.[17] Shange’s text thus participates in the invigorating and life-giving experience of black vernacular language, liberating her text from what Waxman calls the “American ‘standard English’ of the politically empowered” and the “‘anxiety of influence’ of white/male and even black/male literary texts, enabling her to write of black women’s experiences freshly and empathetically.”[18] Shange’s text becomes a harmonious melding of poetic form and personal politics.

Though “somebody almost walked off” is a monologue performed by the lady in green, it, like all the poems in for colored girls, might as well be spoken in unison by the entire rainbow of ladies, for it seems that Shange perceives the ladies as fragmentations of a single consciousness. It is through the process of the ladies separately working through various issues that their colours can merge and become a unified rainbow of emotional and psychological stability. “somebody almost walked off,” in this sense, occupies both the personal and communal domain. Indeed, Gates declares that “it is in the vernacular that, since slavery, the black person has encoded private yet communal cultural rituals.”[19] Thus the text of “somebody almost walked off” epitomises for colored girls in that its vernacular language represents a ceremonial, verbal act that exorcises the pain of the African-American female community as a whole.

Vernacular language, communal rituals, jazz and blues idioms, and unique typographies are all examples of the unique technical innovations that Shange uses in her landmark choreopoem. Such innovations are both a visual component of the significations within her text and a demonstration of her identity as an African-American, female artist. Barrios claims that like her fellow black female playwriting counterparts – Kennedy, Rahman, and de Veaux especially – Shange typifies the African American woman’s “progression from the detection and recognition of pain to its verbalization and, subsequently, to self-affirmation.”[20] Shange’s verse unites form with personal themes in order to depict feelings of the marginalisation experienced as a result of participating in the African-American community. The use of striking forms of poetic structure in for colored girls…, however, represents a rejection of that debilitating marginalisation, thereby transcending the poet’s sense of oppression and opening her text—and herself—to new and liberating means of expression.


[1] Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey” in Black Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Gates (New York: Methuen, 1984), 290.

[2] Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (New York: Scribner, 1975), 13–14. Hereafter all page references will be in parentheses in the body of the text.

[3] Deborah R Geis, “Distraught at Laughter: Monologue in Shange’s Theatre Pieces” in Feminine Focus: New Women Playwrights (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1989), 215.

[4] P. Jane Splawn, “‘Change the Joke[r] and slip the yoke’: Boal’s ‘Joker’ system in Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls… and spell #7,” Modern Drama 41: 3 (1998): 388.

[5] Barbara Frey Waxman, “Dancing Out of Form, Dancing Into Self: Genre and Metaphor in Marshall, Shange, and Walker,” Melus 19: 3 (1994): 92.

[6] Ibid. 92–3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Kimberly W. Benston, “The Aesthetic of Modern Black Drama” in The Theater of Black Americans, ed. Erroll Hill (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980): 62–3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Splawn, “Change the Joke[r] and slip the yoke,” 388.

[11] Geis, “Distraught at Laughter,” 210.

[12] Olga Barrios, “From Seeking One’s Voice to Uttering the Scream: The Pioneering Journey of African American Women Playwrights through the 1960s and 1970s,” African American Review 37: 4 (2003): 611.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Introduction to The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism” in African American Literary Theory (New York: New York UP, 2000), 339.

[15] Gates, “”The Blackness of Blackness,” 339.

[16] Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide, 50.

[17] Barrios, “From Seeking One’s Voice to Uttering the Scream,” 619.

[18] Waxman, “Dancing Out of Form, Dancing Into Self,” 100-01.

[19] Gates, “The Blackness of Blackness,” 339.

[20] Barrios, “From Seeking One’s Voice to Uttering the Scream,” 612.

Frank P. Fury is a fourth-year doctoral student in English literature at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, where he also teaches freshman composition. His areas of specialty include late nineteenth to early-twentieth-century American literature, modern Western drama, Shakespeare, the American short story, and twentieth-century African-American literature. This paper was originally written for a graduate seminar course on twentieth-century African-American writers at Drew in the second semester of 2002. The paper grew out of his interest in the unique typographical experimentations in the verse forms of Shange and Langston Hughes.