For Historic Trenton’s Day in the Life, we’re looking back through newspapers from the beginning and examining everyday problems, solutions, and needs during historic Trenton’s past. Last month, we featured stories celebrating the achievements of African Americans and recognizing their central role in Trenton’s and the nation’s history. This month, we recognize historic women who had a tremendous impact in New Jersey’s State Capital.
Trenton has a history of creating the best artists in the world with a bustling art scene known across the state. Trenton Native Ntozake Shange was no different. Born on October 18, 1948 in Trenton, New Jersey, Shange (formally named Paulette L. Williams) would rise to become a household name in the arts. She grew up with the arts having known legends in the writing and Jazz community. Her family was known for regularly hosting artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. DuBois at their home.
After graduating from Trenton Central High School, Williams enrolled in Barnard College at Columbia University in New York City, where she graduated cum laude in American Studies. There, she met Thulani Davis and began a partnership where the two would create various works. Williams moved out to the University of Southern California to earn her master’s degree in the same area.
In 1971, after struggling with depression sparked by the separation from her college sweetheart, Williams changed her name to Ntozake Shange. Ntozake means “she who comes with her own things,” and Shange means “she who walks with the lions,” from the Xhosa language. She graduated from the University of Southern California in 1973.
As a result of her passion to become a poet and playwright, Shange ultimately created several books of poetry, some of which include Ridin’ the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings; From Okra to Greens; A Daughter’s Geography; Three Pieces, Nappy Edges; Natural Disasters and Other Festive Occasions; and Melissa & Smith. Her plays include the likes of Daddy Says; Spell #7; From Okra to Greens/A Different Kinda Love Story; A Photograph: Lovers-in-Motion; and last, but certainly not least, she is renowned for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.
That last one won an Obie Award and received a Tony, Grammy, and Emmy Award Nomination. It was one of the first of her famous choepoems, a term Shange coined to describe her art. It was a first for the industry combining poetry, dance, music, and song to chronicle the lives of women of color in the United States.
“A play has a form that has to be finished. A performance piece has an organic form, but it can even flow. And there doesn’t have to be some ultimate climax in it. And there does not have to be a denouement,” Shange said about her compositions.
Shange was an Emmy, Tony, and Grammy award nominee. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1981, an NDEA fellowship, two Obie Awards, the Paul Robeson Achievement Award the Living Legend Award from the National Black Theatre Festival, and being inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.