(Based on a conversation with Donald Sutton, Trustee, Ntozake Shange Literary Trust)
By Bernice Elizabeth Green
Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When The Rainbow Is Enuf is back on Broadway at the Booth Theater, since last night’s revival premiere.
The writer’s masterpiece has garnered tremendous critical acclaim with its current cast under the direction of Tony-nominated choreographer-director Camille A. Brown…just as it did on its debut. 46 years ago under the legendary Oz Scott.
One Shange celebrant who saw the original production in its successful second year, 1977, was Donald Sutton, who some 20 years later would become Shange’s literary administrator.
Mr. Sutton is an internationally acclaimed arts administrator, fundraiser and strategic guide for many creative artists and performers (imagine having a clientele that understands The Voice of Mr. Ossie Davis). Her work is out of the spotlight, offstage, behind the scenes and that’s why we can see Ms. Shange’s work on Broadway for the next 20 weeks. And I hope for longer. As Literary Trustee, Mr. Sutton is responsible for directing our attention to Shange’s treasure, including 13 plays; 7 novels; six children’s books; and 19 collections of poetry… “plus essays, correspondence and letters to editors,” Mr. Sutton informed us in a recent interview.
Friends accompanied Mr. Sutton the first time he attended the play. “We had a heated discussion afterwards about the great controversy over the negative reactions of black men to For Colored Girls.
Sutton elaborated. “Not all of Shange’s dramas, novels, and poems chronicle the experiences of being a black woman living in American society and the divisive racial, political, and feminist issues constantly confronted, including gender oppression, misogyny, sexism, but most of his work does.
“Ms. Shange focuses on pain, but many of her characters also find joy or possibility through self-discovery. Today, men are more understanding or tolerant of Ntozake’s works. was not so the case 40 years ago.
Mr. Sutton recalled that he and his friends saw “For Colored Girls…” as a “landmark” and “the next step in American drama. “Only a handful of American playwrights had accomplished a play, a play written almost entirely as poetry. Eugene O’Neill? Maybe Arthur Miller? Only a few were able to write entirely in verse.
Timeless most closely strikes Mr. Sutton’s chord when it comes to describing Ntozake’s gifts, skills and talents. “Its vivid imagery and the pace of its work place it among literary classics.”
Mr. Sutton immediately affirmed his statement by recalling a passage from Colored Girls from memory:
sing a black girl song
get him to know himself
know you but
sing its rhythms” (followed by a line from another section)
“let her be born / let her be born / & handle her warmly.”
He then compared Ntozake’s lines to the best one can find in one of the oldest works of Western literature. “The whole thing (for colored girls),” he said, “is like the Illiad. Consider that line in the Greek epic, ‘Sing a song of the bravery of kings and the face that launched a thousand ships.’ It’s Homer…and Ntozake’s work is straight out of that tradition, but entirely focused on the experience of African American women.
“I had heard from a very close friend of hers and mine,” he revealed, returning to responses from black men to For Colored Girls, “that Ntozake reacted very emotionally to criticism of his work by some , and even had regrets about (creating it.) But there was nothing to regret about such a masterpiece.
Sutton asked the male writers he knew a simple question: “Are you critical of ‘For Colored Girls…’?” “I asked them if they could honestly say that in their love life, their sex life, they had never been the actor in any of the situations depicted on ‘For Colored Girls’.
“No one could say, ‘No, that never happened to me, I never did anything like that. I never said that!’ I felt the reactions to the question underpinned the truthfulness and honesty of what Ntozake wrote. She was talking about life, the lives of black women, and the lives of women in general. The truth does evil.”
There was another truth that may have hurt Shange in a different way: Sutton informs that when the show opened on Broadway and sold out, it was playing to 6,000 people a week within months. “For Colored Girls was the highest-grossing play of Broadway’s 1975–76 season and was nominated for a Tony for Best Play.
“When Equus won, I really felt Ntozake was robbed. For Colored Girls was the season’s box office leader, it didn’t seem fair. That was in 1977. Since then, the play holds the record for the longest running play by an African-American writer in Broadway history.A lot has changed.
Ntozake Shange attended Barnard College in New York and graduated with honors in 1970. She received a master’s degree in American Studies in 1973 from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. In college, she went through a period of depression. But through words, she found inner strength to carry on, becoming a writer, performer and director.
As a college and university faculty member, she has taught courses in women’s studies, creative writing, poetry, and drama across the country. She has received numerous awards, including the 1992 Paul Robeson Achievement Award, the 1993 Living Legend Award from the National Black Theater Festival, and the Pushcart Prize. for colored girls was nominated for Tony, Emmy and Grammy Awards in 1977. It won the Outer Circle Critics Award as well as several Obie Awards.
In 2004 Shange suffered a stroke, which affected his ability to write. She passed away in 2018.
Note to readers: An interview, announced for this week, with Ntozake Shange’s brother, Paul Williams, Jr., will be featured at Our Time Press’s June celebration for men.