Award-winning playwright and author Ntozake Shange spoke bluntly and openly about ongoing race and gender issues during WKU Cultural Enhancement’s final presentation.
Shange, best known for her play “For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf,” addressed a crowd of about 125 students, faculty, and community members in Van Meter Hall at 7:30 p.m. Monday night.
“Sometimes I find life disheartening because I hoped the lives of our daughters would be different than ours,” the 64-year-old Shange said.
Before Shange’s presentation, David Lee, dean of Potter College of Arts and Letters and chairman for the Cultural Enhancement Series, said he found Shange “a difficult woman to introduce in a few words or phrases.”
“Her works reach across the vast expanses of art,” Lee said. “She’s a dynamic and important voice for the artistic community.”
Shange was accompanied by actor and director Claude Sloan, who said he’s known Shange for nearly four decades and who Lee called her “artistic associate and friend.”
“I want to have a conversation like we have at home,” Shange said. “Claude’s also my housemate… We want to take the spirit of being in our own living room and share that with you.”
Sloan said he’d probably find something out at the presentation that he hadn’t heard before.
Shange described with vivid detail her upbringing, and how her childhood home functioned as a hotel for a variety of guests, including W.E.B. DuBois, Dizzy Gillespie, and James Brown.
Shange’s mother performed and memorized poetry, and Shange said her father loved Afro-Cuban music. Shange said it this consistent exposure to culture and art became a part of her life from an early age.
“I thought that being a poet or singer or artist was the normal thing to do,” Shange said. “I thought everyone lived like that.”
Prompted by Sloan, Shange then spoke about her transition to college, which also coincided with national integration. She said she maintained her cultural lifestyle through her writing.
“Integration cut through black cultural traditions like machetes,” Shange said.
Shange touched briefly on the struggle to get “For Colored Girls” on Broadway.
“Very few people thought it would be successful,” Sloan said.
Shange laughed and said, “They do call it the great white way.”
Sloan pointed out that despite Shange’s most famous works being written in the mid 1970s, he finds that her pieces have gained significance over the years.
“I have to look at Tzake’s work and check the copyright date because it seems more relevant now than it was in the 1970s,” Sloan said.
And what does Shange think of Tyler Perry’s 2010 movie adaptation of “For Colored Girls”?
“That movie was full of ill-conceived notions, sleight of hand script writing…and imposed hierarchical things that weren’t there,” Shange said.
Sloan explained that Shange offered advice to Perry and didn’t respond to any of them.
“Most disturbing for me was that I thought Tyler was going to take the time to step out of the movies he normally does,” Sloan said. “He chose a safe way… I’m still trying to figure out what the hell was Whoopi Goldberg’s character.”
Shange and Sloan announced that they’re currently in talks with HBO on a 10-part miniseries of “For Colored Girls,” and each episode will be written and directed by an African American.
The presentation ended with a question-and-answer session. Guests could meet Shange and have books signed after the presentation in the Van Meter lobby.
Freshman Blake Soper said Shange’s presentation exceeded his expectation walking into the lecture.
“She was pretty straight forward,” Soper said. “She didn’t beat around the bush. If a racy question or topic was asked, you got a racy answer.”
Lee offered a sneak peek of next season’s guests. Lee said male vocal group Chanticleer, poet Garrison Keillor, Ailey II dance company and the Berglund jazz club are currently set to present in next year’s series.