Tag Archives: Ntozake Shange

Notes on Reading

by Leelee Jackson

I just spent money I barely have on books I may never read. 

I know I’m not alone in that. I, like many of my friends, have a wide range of books in my personal library. I take pride in my unique and extensive collection of Black plays! Y’all, it’s wild. Some of my anthologies, readers and books are first edition, out of print, and just good ass books. I’ve read a lot of them because of college.  I still have almost every play I had to read in school. Because I had to read them and write about them, they all offered some critical perspective that I often find myself going back to. Sometimes I just read my written notes in them. That’s why I don’t do audiobooks like that; where do I put my lil notes at? Like I gotta keep my opinion to myself!? No. I read in conversation with the writer. And as a writer, when I write, I write to someone. I write in conversation. So I talk back in my books. I just love books so much. I’m that friend who will send you a book because you told me something kinda relevant 3 years ago in the bathroom at the club. A good book be having me so obsessed. Like when I read Assata by Assata Shakur. I for sure was at the DMV, beach, coffee shop, honestly anywhere I may have had to wait for more than 40 seconds, I was pulling that thang out, turning them pages rigorously. I just couldn’t get enough. I felt like I got to learn from Assta personally. Same with Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison and The Delicacy of Embracing Spirals by MIMI tempest. These are books that had me reading cover to cover (which I do not do often).  

But it wasn’t always that way for me. I’ve been reading Ntozake Shange’s Sing a Black Girl’s Song, a collection edited by Imani Perry (who also wrote the best autobiography about Lorraine Hansberry which is in my top 5) and she talks about how Shange grew up with books in her home. Her parents read and bought books for her to read too. Toni Morrison worked at the library when she was like 14. And got in trouble for reading more than she would work. Lorraine Hansberry was similar, very well read. August Wilson literally dropped out of middle school and educated himself at the library. He read everything. All my faves talk about all these good books they remember seeing on the shelves in their homes and engaging with at their local libraries. But not me. The only good book I remember in my home growing up was the good book. I remember my mom reading Fly Girl by Omar Tyree when that came out. She carried it with her everywhere she went and my sister got to read it after her. But not me. I was watching Moesha and Kenan and Kel. I swear the only thing I thought about in elementary school was how I was going to be on Nickelodeon. I wasn’t worried about no books. Mainly because, ya girl couldn’t read! 

It’s wild, I know. I love books so much now but growing up, I had very low comprehension skills. Having ADHD is so distracting sometimes. And it made it hard for me to really understand written words. So during reading time, I just admired pictures. I always struggled in grade school. Teachers begged my mom to allow them to hold me back a grade, put me in special classes and send me to special schools (it was the 90’s so everything was special). But my mom wouldn’t let them. She’d be mad at me for not trying harder but she never let them hold me back. 

It wasn’t until 7th grade in literature class when we were given the opportunity to have a pizza party if we all finished reading a book about a working poor family on the Southside of Chicago who wanted to move into a bigger home. At the time, my family was living with my paternal grandma and in total, there was about 13 of us in the 3 bedroom apartment (1.5 baths). And I never say no to pizza! So I read the first act and I remember loving it so much. How the words were laid out on the page made me feel smart. Every single time I turned the tiny page, I felt less… special. I remember no one in class taking it seriously but not me. I read every line. There were no pictures to look at, instead I saw a world I knew about. 

I love reading now. And I wish I could say after that book in 7th grade I was one of those people who you always caught with a book in hand. But I didn’t. I got better. I did pick up Fly Girl, which felt like a rite of passage. And I did get heavily into the Bible in high school. But it was a very slow journey. But that journey eventually led me to a pen and paper. Allowing me to create worlds of my own. 

I love that for me. 

The Playwright’s Voice and/or Intentions…

by Robin Byrd

The collaboration part of theater should not to come at the expense of the playwright’s voice and/or intentions. Is that a true statement?

I have been thinking about this — how intent/vision plays a big part in the end results of play production. But, whose vision should win out – if there is such a thing as winning in this case. Should it be a battle to get the story you wrote told, should you have to pick which part you will let go for the sake of someone else’s vision? Getting it to the stage is a big deal, getting collaborators who see the play as you do is an even bigger deal. I think the collective vision should be the playwright’s vision, first and foremost, and all other visions should move that vision forward, not stifle it, change it, ignore it but add to the layers of it. Tied up in all that intent, is a playwright’s voice which is life…blood, the culmination of many journeys, a song whose rhythm is pain and joy, a sound flung up to heaven echoing back at us…

I wonder about these things. What if after all one’s striving over the perfect line, it is missed in delivery or rearranged or deemed non-important; I hope my intent as a playwright is not lost…and I hope collaborator choices bring something wonderful to the piece and do not take away from my intent or my voice. I hope they ask me questions… while I am a living playwright.  But, most of all, I hope that I speak up if and when I need to, whether or not it is expected or welcomed to make my intentions known.

Intent. What is the playwright’s intent? That question is asked in literary settings when studying fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama; it is also asked in acting class during scene study. It is a question that I strive to answer in all my work. It is the thing that makes a story stay with you…

Some interesting articles I found about intentions:

Pulitzer Winner Bruce Norris Retracts Rights to German Troupe’s Clybourne Park Over “Blackface” Casting

Playwright Katori Hall Expresses Rage Over “Revisionist Casting” of Mountaintop With White Dr. Martin Luther King

Playwright David Mamet Halts Play over Gender-Bending Casting

Heated exchanges at La Jolla Playhouse over multicultural casting [Updated]

Mike Lew – Playwright on Casting Actors of Color

‘For Colored Girls’ Movie: Ntozake Shange’s ‘No Madea’ Rule


I think about these things because I want to make sure that all of my work is filled with my voice and my intent without confusion and I don’t want to have to worry about it once the piece takes wings.

So, Yes; it is true that the collaboration part of theater should not to come at the expense of the playwright’s voice and/or intentions…  What do you think?

For the Girls Who Tell Stories…


My month – last month – started off well, full of good intentions with the exception of scrambling for references for a certain competition.  It’s always hard to ask – again.  It’s not hard to know who to ask just hard to ask someone to write that reference one more time and you hope you won’t have to ask next year because you’ll be successful and there will be no need to ask again – you hope.  Near the middle of the month – September, the heaviness that accompanies the submission period hit me like a brick…  This time of the year is also the most demanding period of my “day job” which causes the inevitable fight to replenish myself in order to just keep up with everything.  For some quick R & R, I found myself sneaking moments with Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” which I had never read and even though I have the beginnings of the perfect play to send…somewhere, I couldn’t stay away from the book.  It was like balm; reading it renewed me…like watching the sun set over the Pacific does.  That’s the thing about a good story, it pulls you into that world and out of yours for a moment.  I found Scout’s voice very comforting even though some of the subject matter was not.  I think it was the pure innocence of the child that grabbed me.  It seemed Atticus, Miss Maudie, and even Aunt Alexandra tried very hard to keep the children viewing the world through unskewed eyes.  As long as I could see the events through Scout’s eyes, I could see the patches of light in the middle of the gray. 

There are things about fiction that I try to bring to my playwriting like the full on description of the world to be materialized in some way in my plays and the lingering of sorts, the way a book lingers with you after you have come to know the characters or come face to face with the clear essence of the piece.  I had that experience this past weekend with Jennie Webb’s play, “Yard Sale Signs” about mothers and daughters (playing at the Rogue Machine Theatre).  It’s a comedy but it is so rich and full of stuff, I have to admit, there was a point early in the piece where I heard myself think, “Don’t you dare do that here and now”.  Who cries at a comedy?   So, I laughed instead, it was easy to laugh because it’s a really funny play.  I wasn’t sure I understood it all till the ride home when I couldn’t stop thinking about it, then I woke up the next morning thinking about it.  I’m still thinking about it.  I had never seen a play like that before, it caught me off guard so I promptly put my guard up.  Didn’t matter, it lingered.

The most important thing I came away with from Jennie’s play is that I need to work my  “Mother things” into the mix with approaching deadlines.  Live theater – it is truly a living breathing thing with a voice.  What really draws me to theater is the “right now-ness” of it – right now you are in the characters’ world and they are flesh and bone and if they stumble, you see it unfold, you feel it jumping out at you and you may even jump with them or in response.  You can’t push pause or sit the actors down till you are ready to get back into it; it’s an “off and running” thing and “ready or not”, it’s a “right now” moment.  But, if it’s a good moment, it lasts a lifetime…

I talk about going there as a writer but the flip side is going there as an audience member.  I should have cried like I wanted to.  Laughing and crying are tied together and sometimes the emotions that cause one to laugh are the same that cause one to cry.  I hope I can get back to see “Yard Sale Signs” again.  I’ll sit in the back and just let the jewels of truth have their way with me… 

It’s all the special moments that make theater so exciting, so spellbinding…like when I saw “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” by Ntozake Shange.  I had forgotten those moments until I saw the trailer for the movie “For Colored Girls” based on Shange’s play; the movie will open November 5th.  I tell you, I have to watch that trailer almost every day.  I had to re-read the play and that’s when I remembered…it was after seeing that play that I really began to search for my voice as a woman which has everything to do with my voice as a writer.  It was the first play I had ever seen at a real theater and there were brown girls just like me up on that stage but they were more than just brown girls, they were women talking about women’s things and feeling women’s feelings.  It is impossible to have a true world view without hearing from the women and the men…


for the girls who tell stories…/ and climb trees alongside their brothers, reaching the upper branches to look out on the world/ who dance in spite of the offbeat rhythms running through their lives/ who sing in the wrong key till they learn the notes were never theirs to sing any way/ for the girls who find their own song and their own way to sing it/ who create from wombs, from words, or from living/ having more than a little “somethin’ somethin’” to give/ for the girls who dare to have a say…

i say… thank you…/ i’m listening…