Archive Excavation – Ntozake Shange

We welcome guest blogger and one of our most hardworking Spoken Word Archive volunteers, bleue granada, for the latest post in our #ArchiveExcavation series. Here, bleue unveils the influential work of Ntozake Shange, whose progressive thinking pushed the theatrical conventions of the 1980s, building and elevating a platform for Black women writers…

The joy of archiving is that you excavate interesting finds. Returning to Apples and Snakes after ten years – when I’d first tentatively begun ordering the vast volume of ephemera – I find that the archive is again proving to be a task much more involved. As I am sure you can imagine, after nearly thirty-five years of promoting our passion for poetry – and after several office moves coupled with various (maybe over-enthusiastic) tidying-up sessions – we have sadly lost a number of irreplaceable items. This is, of course, frustrating, which is why if you have any flyers knocking about in the back room, the shed, the garage or the loft, or tucked away as book markers in that cookery book you never cook from (or that old favourite A&S Velocity anthology), then we would love to hear form you, just in case it’s one of the missing gems we are looking for.

But I digress. And so, to return to my excavating expedition, the continued digging is nonetheless exciting, even with these setbacks.

As I trawl through the folder of press cuttings of the 1980s, I can be heard murmuring my delight at photographic discoveries of our more noted/famous artistes in their early days – all young, fresh-faced and unaware of the careers ahead of them. I happen upon a very young Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze and alongside her a rare and wonderful discovery of why the history, recognition, and documentation of Apples and Snakes is integral in the British cultural landscape. The 80s saw a vibrant spoken word scene, which was very political, intellectual, and culturally inclusive. Against this backdrop was an invitation for Ntozake Shange to headline in our Women of the Word show that toured in London (venues such as North Peckham Civic Centre, the Ritzy Cinema, Yaa Asantewaa Arts Centre) and then to other parts of the UK such as Liverpool, Hull, and Oxford, to name but a few.


Ntozake Shange | Photo credit: Julian Stapleton

For those of you who have ever undertaken a Black theatre module at university, or were lucky enough to catch the London production at the Royalty Theatre back in October 1979 (in Portugal Street, off Kingsway), you’ll know that Ntozake Shange’s creative all-black female play, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (1975/7), pushed theatrical conventions of the three-act structure with what she described as a choreopoem. A choreopoem contained specific aesthetics such as poetry and prose, dance/movement and music. Her play transferred from Off Broadway to Broadway to critical acclaim, winning awards along the way.

As a writer, playwright and spoken word artist, Shange pushed the boundaries of theatrical writing conventions. She eschewed the prescribed ‘correct’ spelling of words for her own creative expression, purposely using phonetic spelling of dialect that expressed the truth of the cultural currency for her characters. What she wanted to achieve was an authenticity of her characters, conveyed in their representations. Her motivation was the ‘truth’ in telling her stories more than pleasing the grammar police, and the real creation of language and its possibilities.

Ntozake Shange came to prominence on the crest of the zeitgeist wave of Black American women writers; sharing the platform of recognition with contemporaries such as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Their presence challenged the dominant white culture’s preconceived limitations of their representations of blackness and what was considered its reality according to those who thought they knew. All of them brought a literary intellectualism to their writing that was hitherto underestimated.

It was a revelation to find that such an important writer within the context of Black writing history was showcased by Apples and Snakes and highlights the importance of the Archive for future generations.

Sadly, there is no audio recording of Women of the Word and it pre-dates the point when we started filming our shows. So if anyone out there reads this and has any photographs or a recording – or just memories of seeing either the show or Ntozake’s play – do get in touch, as we’d love to hear from you.

(As a personal stance I have deliberately used the uppercase ‘B’ as opposed to the lower case. There has been debate surrounding the importance of Black people’s identity being afforded the same respect as other nationalities, and the status. I feel the choice of the diaspora on evolving definitions of ‘self’ needs to be respected and understood in the context of ownership from a stolen history).

Don’t miss any of our exciting spoken word discoveries – follow #ArchiveExcavation to keep up to date with the latest Archive finds. The Spoken Word Archive is supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund. Find out more about the Archive project, here.  

SWA_LOGO_RGB-CHARCOALInterested in archiving? Apples and Snakes is looking for archive volunteers to be part of our Spoken Word Archive project. You will be able to commit one day a week, tasks will include digitising audio-visual material, scanning and inputting data onto the archive website. Useful to have an interest in the history of spoken word, and a knowledge of digital technology. Contact Russell Thompson, Archive Coordinator for more information about the Spoken Word Archive and to register your interest.