Ntozake Shange's "choreopoem"

During her career as an artist, Ntozake Shange has crafted poems, plays, novels, performance art, installations,and paintings, and has performed as a dancer, actress, and poet. With such an eclectic array of media to her credit, it is not surprising that her dramatic work defies standard theatrical categorization. Shange coined the term "choreopoem" to describe her first dramatic work, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. With a strong connection to African traditions, this choreopoem emphasizes intense emotions over rational discourse. Using for colored girls as a template by which to compare her other dramas, I will examine the elements of the choreopoem and how the form functions to evoke emotional response.

Shange was born Paulette Williams in 1948 in Trenton, New Jersey. She grew up with a very privileged intellectual and economic life considering her race and the times; her father was a surgeon and her mother a social worker. They entertained friends of diverse cultural backgrounds as well as many important black musicians, writers, and intellectuals. When she was eight her family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where she continued her intellectual and creative growth in the midst of the city's extensive cultural offerings. However, being bused to a German-American school as part of Brown versus the Board of Education enforcement led Shange to experience the rejection and abuse of being a black child in a segregated, racist society.

Fighting [/Struggling] against the constraints placed on black women in America, Shange entered Barnard College. While receiving her degree in American Studies, Shange married and then divorced, and soon after attempted suicide. Acknowledging several such attempts, Shange sees the cause as the society which was trying to enforce limits on her identity. She still moved on to receive her master's degree from the University of Southern California, and then to teach college courses. Around that same time, she began working with various regional dance companies and reciting poetry with the Third World Collective (Brown, "Shange" 241).

In 1971, Shange took her Zulu name to protest her western roots and the slave identity associated with her given name. {Cite} Ntozake means "she who comes with her own things" and shange means "she who walks like a lion." In his Ntozake Shange: A Critical Study of the Plays Neal Lester notes that Shange's interest in naming is not only evidenced again is several of her dramas, but also in her choice of the word "choreopoem" to describe her dramatic form (10-11). The word itself suggests a splintering of genre constraints and a de-emphasis on conventional theatrical models.

The choreopoem format was developed in tandem with for colored girls, which began as a series of poems exploring seven different aspects of African-American women. In the introduction to for colored girls, Shange details the evolution of the poems from improvisational readings with dance and music to a more fixed and theatrical presentation on Broadway. Beginning in 1974, Shange and friends performed constantly shifting selections of the poems at women's bars and other alternative performance spaces in California, often for standing-room-only audiences. Then in 1976, with friend and dancer Paula Moss, Shange took the material to New York. After unsuccessful attempts to recreate the California experience at the Studio Rivbea on the lower east side of Manhattan, Shange accepted director Oz Scott's offer to provide theatrical guidance. With his assistance, the piece acquired additional actresses and a set script as it continued to be performed in neighborhood bars. These no-frills presentations gained popularity, and the piece soon earned a genuine theatre space and more theatrical accoutrements.

The choreopoem's unusual development suggests that from its conception it was not intended to have the traditional western emphasis on complex plot and character. Shange insists that her plays do not deal with issues; the only "point" of her theatre is to explore peoples lives in such a way that it produces an intense emotional response from her audience (Black Women, 171). She achieves this by using a fragmented form which combines non-linear structure, abstracted and variable characters, poetic language, and non-verbal expression, to generate a powerful theatrical experience based in her own marginalized cultural tradition. Although she does not use the subtitle "choreopoem" for all of her dramatic pieces, the elements associated with the form are evidenced in them all. Most of Shange's writing, both poems and novels, have been translated to stage (Shange,Playwright's Art, 218 ), but for the purpose of this paper I will only compare and contrast works that have been published as plays.

Shange defines herself more as a poet than a playwright, and her disdain of traditional play structures belies this bias. In for colored girls, Shange creates a flexible space, only ever described as "a stage," which can be manipulated by the performers imaginations to provide the necessary theatrical environments. The choreopoem has an episodic construction, comprised mostly of monologues which "emphasize the centrality of storytelling" and create the "narrative space" of the piece (Geis, 211-13). As suggested in Shange's essay "takin a solo/ a poetic possibility/ a poetic imperative" the effect of the monologues is like musical solo: "i am not trying to give you a history of my family/ the struggle of black people all over the world . . . / i am giving you a moment/ like something that isnt coming back/ a something particularly itself/ like an alto solo in december in nashville in 1937" (SeeNoEvil, 32). Even the moments in the choreopoem suggestive of dialogue function more as segue or emphasis than as plot devices; between "graduation nite" and "now I love somebody more" the ladies speak in rapid succession to bridge the subconscious connection between sex and dance (9-10). Occasionally the stories are broken among performers, but the effect--as seen in "latent rapists'" (17-21)--is more like a greek chorus: a unified narrative expressed in many voices.

The choreopoem essentially has no plot, but is unified instead by the singularity of voice (Lester, 11). Shange speaks often of her interest in the "poetry of a moment/the emotional & aesthetic impact of a character or a line." (three pieces, ix) which allows her to capture the essence of existence and present it to an audience with visceral shock instead of linear exposition. Most of the stories are grounded in real life experiences, but the fragmented atmosphere in which they are presented frees them from rational evaluation. As disjointed fragments of plot, character, and language, for colored girls avoids the closure associated with white, male dominated western theatre tradition (Timpane, 202-03). However, even without any through line of action there is still a build in dramatic intensity that carries through the work, except it is based more on rhythm and emotional impact than the plot and character complications which fuel the climax of traditional drama. The series of poems start gently, with shades of quiet desperation in "dark phrases:"

half notes scattered
without rhythm/no tune
distraught laughter falling over a black girl's shoulder
it's funny/it's hysterical
the melodylessness of her dance
don't tell nobody don't tell a soul
she's dancing on beer cans and shingles (1-2)

From this beginning, the poems move quickly through song and dance into the hopeful excitement and blossoming sexuality of "graduation night." Following, there are three more upbeat poems before Shange begins to plunge the audience into the emotional depths of "latent rapists'"(17-21) and "abortion cycle #1"(22-23).

The most emotionally powerful poem is presented near the of end the play in "a nite with beau willie brown." It is the story of crystal, the mother of beau's two children, who finally declares her independence from their dangerous relationship only to have beau drop her children from the fifth story window when she refuses to marry him. The pain expressed in the last lines of this poem then explodes into the celebration that culminates the play in "a laying on of hands." The endurance of crystal's suffering moves the ladies, along with the audience, to discover "I found god in myself/& I loved her/I loved her fiercely" (67). The audience joins the performers in this cathartic climax.

Even though Shange says director Oz Scott introduced "whatever formal conventions of theatre" exist in for colored girls, she also says that she always arranged her poems with a specific intent: to capture the audience with more amusing or anecdotal sorts of "comfortable" poems, allowing them to relax, and then plunging them into "the depths of hell" with experiences "hazardous to one's emotional health" once they are too relaxed to avoid involvement. "I'm not following a plot line so much as I'm following the surrender of my audience's emotions to the dynamic of the realities of my characters" (Playwright's Art, 206-07, 214). The structure of the piece and its emotional impact are intentionally intertwined.

a photograph: lovers-in-motion is Shange's third published theatre piece, but it was produced over a year before her second published work, spell #7, and seems to represent an intermediary phase in her theatrical development. The play is about sean, a struggling photographer, and the three lovers--michael, nevada, and claire-- he abuses in his misery. a photograph is set in a realistic apartment, and unlike for colored girls, it is comprised of concrete events and has a climax which builds through action as much as it does through emotion. Although critics noted difficultly in identifying a clear plot line (Eder, Valentine), there are still cause and effect relationships from one moment to the next. When michael coerces claire into receiving a massage, the resultant compromising position engages sean in conflict with claire (three pieces, 72 74). Although charged with the same emotional energy as the stories in for colored girls, this kind of logical progression of incident does not inspire the catharsis that for colored girls's disjointed roller coaster ride inspires.

Shange still emphasizes monologue, but in conjunction with considerably more dialogue it becomes a tool to reveal complex character relationships instead of pure moments of recreated experience (Geis 212). a photograph retains the episodic structure of Shange's first choreopoem, but while it unified for colored girls, here it serves to interrupt the action. She offers just enough of a realistic story to pull us in and out of belief with each abrupt transition. Her attempt to fuse elements of the choreopoem's style with traditional dramatic scheme produces a piece which, although both tempestuous and structured, neither rouses emotions as effectively as for colored girls nor stimulates the intellect enough to please conventional critics. Richard Eder of the New York Times found the piece to be "forced, and finally broken by its form." Even considering such general lack of enthusiasm, the one reviewer who says that Shange's "passion carr[ies] the show" (Oliver) suggests that this weaker construct, combined with the other choreopoem elements she incorporates, still effects emotional impact.

In spell #7: a geechee jibara qwik magic trance manual for technologically stressed third world people Shange reverts to a less rigid episodic structure, in which no coherent through line of action exists and instead rhythm and emotional intensity carry the drama to climax. Shange creates a more realistic setting for spell #7 than for colored girls; this neighborhood bar in New York has all the necessary details to support a conventional drama. The narrative, however, is unified more by a single set element, a gigantic minstrel mask which hangs over the stage from the time the audience enters, than by conventional plotline. The mask represents the standards of western theatre tradition, "somebody else's idea" of how a theatrical presentation should be generated. Instead of conveying her own cultural reality, these traditions try to contain her characters within a "point" (Black Women, 173). So Shange offers us as a theater which displaces linear narrative action with "an all encompassing moment/ a moment of poetry/ the opportunity to make something happen" (Shange, three pieces, xi) She combines displaced monologues and vignettes with bits of dialogue in which the characters talk to each other about their "real" lives as black performers struggling in a biased theatre world. Throughout the work, Shange lets her characters recreate the realistic performance space "in different imaginary ways" to convey the individual narratives and adds a central storyteller--the magician lou--to help unify the episodes (Geis, 213, 219). One reviewer said the work achieved "new levels of theatrical excitement" (Beaufort, 109), suggesting that Shange once again escapes the rigid boundaries of conventional structure to give the performance power.

For boogie woogie landscapes, Shange moves away from the realistic detail which grounded a photograph and spell #7, and sets the exploration in a space which should "suggest" a bedroom, filled with "objects" that only resemble bedroom furniture. It is "the geography of whimsy, fantasy, memory, and the night" (three pieces, 113). Often referred to as a companion piece to for colored girls, boogie presents the dream-life of layla, "an all-american colored girl" (??). Following the lead of other choreopoem elements, the stories of boogie are less tangible and more metaphoric than most of the stories related in for colored girls:

she tries to stumble on something to stop
this charcoal life/she goes from room to room
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
everything she touches gets blacker and more nondescript
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
smudges/ i'm soft graphite
i'm clumsy and reckless/i'm a hazard to definitions (115)

Layla's "night-life companions"--the characters which Shange also refers to as her "dream memories"--cross through walls as they assist the storytelling, heightening the sense of surrealism and circular progression, thus increasing the subconscious effect of layla's destruction of definitions and the poems' arousing imagery.

There is no action in boogie other than exploration of the psyche. Layla's dream-memories take turns helping her encapsulate her experiences into a history of identity and culture, creating the familiar episodic construction of the choreopoem. Shange's use of monologue is more advanced here. The script does not have the same "solo" effect as for colored girls, but here her breaking down of the text into smaller units creates monologue in many voices, not dialogue. Since all the characters are working together to relate one individual's story within a specific cultural context, the entire piece would seem to be more unified than Shange's previous works. Under the headline "Bungled 'boogie'" one reviewer talks disparagingly about the complete lack of "structure, coherence, and continuity," while in the same paragraph that he notes that "the effect is powerful" (McLellan, C6). This generally negative review unknowingly testifies to the success of the work based on Shange's measuring stick.

There is some discrepancy among the sources concerning the first performance of From Okra to Greens: A Different Kind of Love Story. Two of the biographical resources list its first production at Barnard in 1978 (Brown, 240; Peterson,420), but Neal Lester lists it as 1981 (223). I suspect the Barnard performance was little more than recitation, and this is why Lester's book omits it since he focuses specifically on the plays. It doesn't seem to fit after for colored girls as a theatre piece; it presents a very strong adherence to the original principles of the choreopoem, but attains a maturity of form that I do not think could have developed without the intervening experiences of her other plays. To add to the confusion, sections of the poems used in the play script appeared in two other collections of Shange's poetry, and were performed under three different titles (Lester 223 24). There is an inexplicable dearth of reviews and commentary on the theatre work, under any title, in either scholarly or popular media.

Okra and Greens perform on a bare stage, and like the colored ladies they define the space as needed throughout the storytelling. The only set element described is a backdrop painted with "echoes of Africa and the Aztec Empire" and Shange notes an overall lack of anything "suggesting modern times or urban civilization" (7). This play space removes us from everyday associations, allowing the drama to have more subconscious impact.

Like for colored girls, the text of Okra to Greens began as poems which Shange later proceeded to divide, here into two voices instead of seven. The play traces the romantic and sexual relationship of Okra, a black female, with Greens, a black male. Lester notes that the piece presents an unusual take on the standard "boy meets girl" story, and manages to raise the personal to the political.(Critical Study, 224) The stories are not always broken into discrete soliloquies as most of for colored girls is presented, but still function more as monologue spoken in chorus.

The characters of for colored girls are unusual in their lack of a fixed identity. Their names are metaphorical, echoing both the "rainbow" and "colored girls" of the title. This abstraction of name relieves the audience from the expectation of consistency; the "lady in green" can present a different persona at the beginning of the play than she does at the end. Sometimes this fragmentation of character occurs even within a single monologue, the most effective example of this being "beau willie brown." At the end of the long monologue, the lady in red switches from a third person observer's view of crystal's situation to a first person perspective: "I stood by beau in the window/wit naomi reachin for me/& kwame screamin mommy mommy from the fifth story/but I cd only whisper/& he dropped em" (63). The transition is almost imperceptible, since in the moments before she is relating dialogue within the story. The work undergoes a sudden change from "entertainment" to a "ritualized release of pure feeling" (Geis 216) By using this device instead of telling the story from an entirely first person perspective, Shange plunges the audience even deeper into the emotional experience; we feel as if, like the lady in red, we are an external observer who can be distanced from the experience she relates, and then when she crosses over into crystal's identity she takes us with her.

Throughout the play, the colored girls speak as much to the audience as to each other. While this device seems like it might distance the audience from the stories as it often does in conventional drama, within the context of the choreopoem's suspended environment, it instead involves us more deeply in the characters' experiences. When I witnessed an independent production of for colored girls at the Indianapolis Repertory Theatre's second stage, the lady in green directed "somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff" to the audience and I felt as if she was speaking personally to me. When she shouted "I want my stuff back/my rhythms & my voice/open my mouth/& let me talk you outta/throwin my shit in the sewer/. . . . /& give me my memories/how I waz when I waz there/you cant have them or do nothin wit them/stealing my shit from me/dont make it yrs/makes it stolen" (53-54) I felt the urge to hide, to rummage in my pockets or run from the theatre in search of her stuff, to reach out and tell her I never meant to take it from her in the first place.

Another important aspect of character which Shange begins to develop in for colored girls is their ability to share their unconscious mind with the audience (Shange, Black Women, 153; Studies, 54). Tobe Levin compares this expression of self knowledge to "the ancient Chinese women's ritual called 'speaking bitterness,' the externalization of otherwise repressed truths" in which an individual names horrors in order to purge themselves (Levin and Flowers 185). The act of acute self-examination of by the characters can inspire an audience to share in the resultant emotional release.

In keeping with its more conventional form, the characters in a photograph have, individual names and more fixed identities than the ladies of for colored girls. sean's friend earl takes on the character of sean's daddy at one point, but otherwise the characters all present consistent personas. They address each other and interact more directly, and only rarely address the audience. Yet Shange retains the characters' unusual sense of awareness of their own unconscious, as sean demonstrates: "but my god I gotta world now/I gotta world I'm making in my image/I got something for a change/lil sean david who never got nothing over on nothing but bitches/is building a world in his image" (79). It seems unlikely that a real life character as destructive as sean would realize that he uses photography as a means to recreate his oppressed identity.

Shange says that work is a result of "the throes of pain n sensation experienced by my characters responding to the involuntary constrictions n amputations of their humanity" (Shange, three pieces, xiii). Shange's rendering of character in a photograph is perhaps the most emotionally arousing aspect of the play. In his review for the New York Times, Richard Eder acknowledges the power Shange created in the character of michael, but also notes that such "a grave and captivating seer . . . didn't need an unconvincing play as background." It is the sharing of the character's experiences--the cycle of pain breeding anger breeding pain--which moves the audience, not the story which embroils them.

In spell #7, Shange identifies the characters with names and personal histories, such as lily "an unemployed actress working as a barmaid". But she allows them to shift personas by their nature as performers. The actress maxine can act out the story of fay and we can simultaneously believe the character being related and the situation in which she is being related. Shange creates a device which allows the play's characters to function as storytellers in the same way that the ladies in for colored girls do without the need for such gimmicks. As with a photograph, Shange's fusion of traditional theatrical devices with the less linear development of the choreopoem results in a play too grounded in reality to have as powerful an impact as of for colored girls. Perhaps this was Shange's point: to emphasize the conflict between the realistic and magical elements of the drama as metaphor for the characters struggle between their true selves and the cultural masks they are forced to wear. However, the realistic elements interfere with the emotional catharsis which Shange says is her "primary goal in theatre" (Vernacular, 69), and we are left instead with a rational justification for her use of unconventional modes of dramatic storytelling.

The main character in boogie woogie landscapes is identified as layla, and although her name is not an obvious metaphor, Shange notes the word's arabic definition, "born at night," which ties into the dream setting and seems to suggest the "dark" roots of layla's cultural identity. All of the other characters are referred to as layla's "night-life companions" (n.l.c.) one through six, echoing the nameless identities of the colored ladies. Even though layla would seem to have a fixed identity, she struggles with "the consequence of bein real/unpredictable as the weather" (121), and the evolution of her self over the course of her memories presents a fractured character not too different from the ladies. Layla is perhaps the best example of a character who expresses her subconscious truth more directly to the audience than a real character could express to themselves. In the context of the dream landscape layla can voice "her unspeakable realities" even though "no self-respecting afroamerican girl wd reveal so much of herself of her own will/ there is too much anger to handle assuredly/ too much pain to keep on truckin/ less ya bury it" (three pieces, xiv). With the help of the n.l.c.'s, layla holds a mirror to the darkest reaches of her unconscious, encouraging the audience to experience revelations from their own mirrors.

Okra and Greens have names perhaps more distinct than the ladies of the rainbow, but they retain the same metaphoric quality, suggesting to me a fundamental, root connection between these two characters, as well as inherent differences. Because okra and greens are foods, particularly ones popular in african american culture (Lester, ) there are intonations of nourishment and nurturing power. It also seems that, because these vegetables come out of the ground together, the metaphor could be extended to suggest a brother/sister relationship; a common heritage and shared future.

Although placed in a less realistic framework than the characters of spell #7 and a photograph, Okra and Greens still interact and communicate with each other more than the colored ladies. Even when they are speaking of events unrelated to their love affair, stage directions make their interaction apparent. They perform much of their speech in the third person, making it sometimes difficult to follow whether they are talking about each other, themselves, or an absent individual. In "some men" (18-21) it is unclear if Greens is the "pretty man" whose story he tells, or if Okra is the women he inadvertently traumatizes, but regardless of whether the story is about them directly it informs their relationship by exploring themes of sex and beauty. Like the colored girls, they often switch tense in the middle of speech. This breaking down of character serves much the same purpose as it did in for colored girls, elevating the play beyond rational evaluation.

On the printed page, the text in for colored girls is striking because of it's unusual spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. When performed, the language is striking because of its musical flow. Shange says she developed her unique rules of spelling to more accurately depict the way people she knows really speak, and also to better represent the rhythm and tempo of their speech by connecting the structure of the language "to the music that I hear beneath the words" (Black Women, 163-64). Because formal English "inhibits the colloquial use of words" and moves too slowly, she finds it insufficient for expressing the realities of her "more improvisational" characters. She chooses to "dismantle" and "attack" the language in order to use it as "a tool of liberation" (Shange, Vernacular, 69-70). "i fix my tool to my needs/ i have to take it apart to the bone/so the malignancies/fall away/leaving us space to literally create own image" (three pieces, xii)..Shange recreates language instead of allowing the dominant culture to determine proper orthography and so creates a more expressive medium with which her characters can relate their experience.

In addition to unusual spellings, Shange favors lowercase letters over capitals and the virgule over commas and periods. Throughout for colored girls and many of her other texts, Shange avoids the use of capital letters (except when she occasionally punctuates with all capitals) as a means of overturning hierarchy and replacing it with "a democratic interaction of 'lowercase' . . . letters" (Olaniyan, Scars, 127). Her use of the virgule supports the general fragmented structure of the play, breaking the stories into an endless continuation of thought and producing "collages" that are "abrupt" and "violent" (Timpane, 204). Her deviation from standard punctuation contributes more intensity to the imagery of her language.

In a photograph, Shange retains the non-standard syntax, spelling, and poetic form of the language, but in using it to depict realistic dialogue the language seems to become melodramatic. It was described by one critic as "drivel . . . high school literary magazine lyricism" (Valentine). An example of sean's dialogue illustrates: "how many times do i have to tell you/it is not stuff/i am an artist/committed to my art" (three pieces 58). Yet at other points, it is the powerful imagery of the words which so effectively renders the character's pain:

my photographs are the contours of life unnoticed
unrealized & suspect/no buckwheat here
no farina & topsy/here we have the heat of our lives
in our ordinariness we are most bizarre/ prone to
eccentricity/even in our language . . . (108)

The sections of text which have the strongest impact are those that avoid the grounding of traditional interactive dialogue.

Although Shange continues to use non-standard spelling and the virgule in spell #7, the text is presented more like prose than poetry and she says that the work is filled with stories, or "not poetry" (Black Women,165). Regardless, these stories still retain the rhythmic and melodic qualities of her first choreopoem, and she uses much of the same devices of spelling and punctuation. One critic notes that "drama is inherent in each of her poetic sentences because the words hum with a vibrant urgency" (Nelsen, 108). Her use of language allows the performers to execute a powerful performance.

The language in boogie is more abstract, dense, more visually poetic. The imagery Shange reveals is powerful: "I am sometimes naked, but mostly I wear my past." She continues to use the same counterorthography, and in the context of layla's memories we begin to understand why Shange feels the need to recreate language in her own image: "i cant count the number of time have viscerally wanted to attack deform n maim the language that i waz taught to hate myself in/ the language that perpetuates the notions that cause pain to every black child as he/she learns to speak of the of the world & the 'self'"(three pieces, xii) The piece "ny times" echoes her frustration with the language of the popular media, as she personifies the newspaper:

the ny times has never asked me what I think abt a goddamn thing.
the ny times has never excused himself to take a leak.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
at breakfast the times is quite rude
interruptin conversations in ant language (124-25)

Music and dance are fundamentally integrated into for colored girls. They do not serve as punctuation as in traditional musicals, but are instead woven complexly through the piece. While there are very few stage directions in the script, almost all of what is written describes stylized movement, celebratory dance, or popular ethnic music. Shange uses the actresses' bodies to express emotion, as when "all the ladies react as if they had been slapped in the face" (16) before they begin reciting "latent rapists'." Shange was first studying dance around the same time she developed the poems which became for colored girls, and through this new form of expression she discovered that

The freedom to move in space, to demand of my own sweat a perfection that could continually be approached, though never known, waz poem to me, my body & mind ellipsing, probably for the first time in my life. . . . everything African, everything halfway colloquial, a grimace, a strut, an arched back over a yawn, waz mine. I moved what waz my unconscious knowledge of being in a colored woman's body to my known everydayness. (xv-xvi)

Shange uses this knowledge to create powerful moments of drama with gesture: movement which is not quite dance but functions beyond the mundane appeal of usual stage business.

Dancing is often spoken of in the text, leaving it open for a director to add dance segments even where they do not appear in stage directions. The first three poems, "dark phrases";"graduation night"; and "now I love somebody more" all contain explicit references to the experience of dance. "Sechita" suggests the spiritual impact of dance by elevating a tawdry show girl to mythical goddess:

she suddenly threw/her leg full force/thru the canvas curtain/a deceptive glass stone/sparkled/malignant on her ankle/her calf waz tauntin in the brazen carney lights/the full moon/sechita/goddess/of love/egypt/2nd millennium/performin the rites/the conjurin of men/conjurin the spirit/
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
./sechita's legs slashed furiously thru the cracker night/& gold pieces hittin the makeshift stage/her thighs/they were aimin coins tween her thighs/sechita/egypt/ goddess/harmony/kicked viciously through the nite/catchin stars tween her toes. (25-26)

This segment also illustrates a device Shange continues to use in her dramas: one performer expresses a story in words while another is expressing it in movement. The effect produced is that of a more complete thought; she is able to relay layers of meaning by combining two distinct forms of communication. Shange's incorporation of music and dance into the work echoes her frustration with the language of the dominant culture, which she considers to be an ineffective means of expressing the full range of human thoughts and emotions (Studies, 46), especially those of her own culture. By integrating music and dance into for colored girls, the stories can affect us beyond the inherently logical discourse of language.

The only dance included in a photograph exists because one of the characters, michael, is a dancer. Dance is logically connected to her fixed identity, and therefore lacks some of the emotional qualities of dance in for colored girls. The rest of the stage directions are concerned with fairly naturalistic movement as might be found in a more traditional play: "michael swings at nevada, sean grabs nevada and pulls her away"(78). There is still a strong element of gesture in this violent physical action, a motif which is repeated throughout the play. While perhaps lacking the sublime qualities of movement and gesture in for colored girls, violence can be an effective tactic for inciting the audiences' emotions.

Music is not once mentioned in a photograph's script, although it was apparently integrated into the premiere production through collaboration with Shange's present husband David Murray. Shange suggests that not only is her integration of music necessary to fully render the African American experience, but that the music informs the development of sean's awareness of repressed truths, in a way that language alone would have inadequately expressed (three pieces, x). Although music and dance are not as strongly emphasized in a photograph, Shange adds a non-verbal element to a photograph that did not exist is for colored girls; projection of visual imagery. Shange compares photography to poetry, noting that they both express "the density of a moment. . . . the density of truth" (qtd. in Buckley). While seeing sean's photographs may help us understand the complexities and conflict within the artist's character, they also might elevate the drama over logical analysis in the way that music and dance can in for colored girls.

Music and dance play a larger role in spell #7, and are actually described in more detail than they were in for colored girls. However, like a photograph, the inclusion of these elements is more tied to the context of the characters' fixed personas as performers, and lacks some of the ethereal qualities these elements have in for colored girls. However, both sound and movement take on a ritual effect, hinted at in the final scene of for colored girls. Sandra Richard describes the result of this effect, noting that these non-verbal elements function as "mojo . . . a potent mode for conveying a non-cerebral, felt reality for which there is no rational explanation" (76).

As with most of her works, the title boogie woogie landscapes is strongly suggestive of the fundamental thrust of the work, in this case an integration of music and dance into the heart of the work, the landscape of layla's psyche. "Boogie Woogie" is a specific form of jazz uptempo blues (Lester,). "Boogie" later became black slang for dance, as in "get down and boogie," and also connotes sexual intercourse. (Major, 54; Smitherman, 66). There is a suggestion here of the interrelatedness of the rapid movement through time of the play's structure, the physical movement of the characters about the landscape, and the movement of layla through layers of memory and into adulthood.

As suggested by the inclusion of five characters named only "dancers," movement and music are fundamental elements of Okra to Greens. In the first scene before any words are spoken, a gong is sounded and all the characters appear in slow motion, then break into traditional African dance which "approaches nirvanic heights" (7). A variety of African and African-American songs and dances, as well as stylized movement, are described in the stage directions throughout the play. Shange also continues to use the device where one character speaks a story while another physicalizes it. Greens describes the "Crooked woman:"

something always on her
shoulders/ pushin\her outta herself
cuttin at her limbs
a wonder she cd
stand at all (8)

Okra attempts the contortions Greens speaks, creating a more painful rendering than words alone would produce. Shange is very insistent about the need to articulate non-verbal expression in African-American theatre: "the fact that we are an interdisciplinary culture/ that we understand more than verbal communication /. . . . /we can use with some skill virtually all our physical senses/ as writers committed to bringing the world as we remember it/ imagine it/ & know it to be to the stage/ we must use everything we've got. (three pieces, x)" In order to produce any kind of authentic emotional impact with the elements of the choreopoem, Shange must draw from her own cultural experience.

The personal experience which Shange confronts in for colored girls is perhaps best summarized in the line "bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma/i haven't conquered yet" (48). Yet in exploring this personal dilemma, Shange touches much deeper issues. With these fragments of incident, poetry, character, ritual, and music, Shange forces her audience to undergo suffering and struggle, and so thrusts upon them the responsibility of solving the social dilemmas at the root of the suffering. for colored girls reached out, effecting emotional arousal across cultural boundaries. An affirmation of this success can be found in many of the play's reviews. One reviewer calls it "a remarkable inspiring evening" (Wilson). Mel Gussow notes how the "individual lives are transformed into a collective and complete . . . evocation" ("Stage:'Colored Girls'). Clive Barnes' review in the New York Times clearly demonstrates its wide appeal: "It could have easily made me feel guilty at being white and male. It didn't. It made me feel proud at being a member of the human race, and with the joyous discovery that a white man can have black sisters" (qtd. in Rushing 539). By focusing on form and emotional response, Shange's theatre--drawn from personal experience to achieve a political focus on the struggle of african american women--fluidly slips beyond the rational appeal of traditional dramatic devices and instead stabs at the unconscious with the tools of the choreopoem[: fragmented structure, ethereal characters, poetic imagery, music, and dance.] When properly executed, Shange's choreopoems attain a universality beyond her personal bias, to encompass not only women, blacks and other Third World people, but anyone who has ever suffered oppression and pain and survived to celebrate life.



Shange Bibliography & Production History

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© 1996 isa gordon