Scholars, students and faculty gathered to honor the late poet and playwright Ntozake Shange on Friday.
At the event, Shange was honored with poems and presentations Friday morning during the celebration at The Commons. Shange, who’s best known for writing the acclaimed play “for colored girls who have considered suicide / When the rainbow is enuf” in 1976, died in October.
The event was hosted by the Project on the History of Black Writing. Maryemma Graham, founding director of the Project on the History of Black Writing and the University’s distinguished professor in the Department of English, was the first person to take the stage.
Graham talked about how Shange’s work provided a different medium for black cultural expression that wasn’t typically practiced at the time. With “for colored girls,” Shange introduced a new genre of dramatic expression — the choreopoem, which combines dance, music, poetry and song. The play details the experiences of women of color.
“You’ve got these really interesting ways in which people are looking at life,” Graham said. "Black women authors, in particular, are looking at lived experiences through this new genre or form or writing. With this choreopoem, we’ve really got free thinking — what theory is, what rhyming is, what narrative is, how to tell a story and how to interact with the audience.”
Graham also talked about how the audience for the play has grown throughout the years. In 2010, the play was adapted into a Tyler Perry film of the same name.
“It would be in high schools,” Graham said. “It would be in colleges. It was a play that many people felt they could embrace for many reasons, so the fact that the audiences who saw this were wide, diverse and inclusive is really important.”
Next to take the stage was Darren Canady, playwright and English professor at the University. He talked about how “for colored girls” related to similar experiences with his mom.
“As a black woman reared in the ‘50s and ‘60s in Topeka, Kansas, who then comes to the University of Kansas, and, in the midst of becoming radicalized, in the midst of organizing on campus, she sees how her work in the movement is not honored as much as she felt it could’ve and should’ve been,” Canady said. “After graduating and experiencing ‘for colored girls’ it gave an artistic expression and outlet to so many of the things she felt she had not been allowed to say and speak back to, particularly to the black men with whom she befriended and had relationships.”
Canady said that, at the time, he didn’t understand his mother’s reception to the recording (highlighted by the “mmhmms” that he remembers hearing from his mom when she listened to the play), but he said he later realized it was a testament to how the poem related to her experiences.
“Those ‘mmhmms’ become a moment of her, as a Midwesterner and a black woman, being heard and seeing herself, her sisters, her cousins and her aunts captured in a five-minute stretch theatrical literature,” Canady said.
Nicole Hodges Persley, associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and a theater professor at the University, gave the last presentation for the event. Before reading a poem she dedicated to Shange, she said she didn’t take her death lightly.
“The way that I’ve had to process Shange’s death was similar to when I heard Prince had died,” Hodges Persley said. “My whole hip-hop theater survey class knew it was a bad day.”
Hodges Persley began to recite her poem “A Rant for Shange.”
“She made a way for me, a way for me to imagine myself into existence while existing,” Hodges Persley said. “She made a way for me to see myself in all my beauty and intelligence and zeal and power and love and sparkle and quirkiness and funniness and shine.”
The event ended with people from the audience reciting poems from "for colored girls."
Maxwell Birdnow, a graduate student who attended the event, said he liked seeing the audience’s reaction to hearing Shange’s poems being read.
“I wasn’t super familiar with her work, but I definitely want to check it out now,” Birdnow said. “Seeing the different attitudes in which they read her pieces was really cool.”