“Like most people of color, black people in the New World, I came by my passion for literature in a circuitous way, a night journey marked by music, movement, improvisation, and smells of perfume, sweat and humid star-flickering nights,” the playwright and poet Ntozake Shange wrote in her book of essays entitled “Lost in Language & Sound: Or how I found my way to the arts.” To read Ntozake Shange talk about her inspirations is to be astonished by the breadth and depth of her influences. “I pay tribute and homage, first to the wonderous miracle of language on an African’s tongue….”
And so it seems apt that, ten months after Shange died at the age of 70, the theater collective of six African-American producers known as Harlem9 is paying tribute and homage to Shange in their ninth annual “48 Hours in Harlem” on August 25th.
As I explain in my article for TDF Stages, How African-American Classics Are Inspiring a New Generation of Black Writers, Harlem9 has presented a show every year since 2011 in which participating writers, directors and actors are given just 48 hours to conceive, rehearse and mount a half dozen short plays, each inspired by a specific African-American classic.
The first year, for example, among the six then-emerging playwrights assigned what Harlem9’s Sandra A. Daley-Sharif calls this “exercise in creativity,” Dominique Morisseau wrote “The Masterpiece” inspired by George C. Wolfe’s “The Colored Museum,” Mfoniso Udofia wrote “Hunger” inspired by Amiri Baraka’s “Dutchman,” and Keith Josef Adkins wrote “Potato Salad” inspired by Charles Fuller’s “Zooman and the Sign.” (These and subsequent new plays from the annual show have been collected in four published anthologies, included one generated from “48 Hours in El Bronx,” a Latinx-focused edition that Harlem9 has presented in collaboration with Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater since 2016.)
Twice before over the years, Harlem9 has assigned playwrights to riff on Shange’s best-known work, “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf,” which ran on Broadway for 742 performance starting in 1976, making Shange only the second black woman (after Lorraine Hansberry) to have authored a play on Broadway. Shange called “for colored girls…” a “choreopoem” for its mix of poetic monologues, music and dance, and marveled that “the cast is enveloping almost 6,000 people a week in the words of a young black girl’s growing up, her triumphs & errors, our struggle to become all that is forbidden by our environment, all that is forfeited by our gender, all that we have forgotten.”
In October, the Public Theater, which presented Shange’s choreopoem before it moved to Broadway, will revive it.
And for the first time, all six source inspirations for the August 25th “48 Hours in Harlem” will be by the same writer — Ntozake Shange.
“People do not know how much she wrote,” says Garlia Cornelia Jones, one of Harlem9’s founders who’s also serving as the line producer for the Public Theater’s revival of “for colored girls.” “The first thing people associate with her is for colored girls… and they stop there. Her obituary said she wrote 15 plays.” — 15 plays, 19 poetry collections, six novels, five children’s books and three essay collections. “But her poems too are full of characters and story.”
“for colored girls…” is one of the six works that will be assigned at random to one of the playwrights on August 23rd. But there is also a novel (“Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo”) among the other works, which include “spell #7,” “A Photograph: Lovers in Motion,” “Black & White Two-dimensional Planes” and “boogie woogie landscapes.”
The playwrights who will take on the challenge:
Karen Chilton, C.A. Johnson, Liz Morgan
Aurin Squire, York Walker, Charles White