Cooking with Shange

The name of Ntozake Shange (that's "En-toe-zak-ee Shang-gay") will be forever attached to that of her most famous play, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. Written by a very young Shange (in her early twenties), the play opened to huge critical acclaim in 1976 at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre. But she doesn't much care for it now.

In her tiny yellow living room, she sits on her favorite wooden box, smoking and frowning ever so slightly. The April afternoon is blowzy and already long with Texas warmth. The lace curtain at the window billows up behind her.

What's it like to be forever identified with one major work?
"It's a little annoying," she says. "If I was not as generally healthy as I am, I would feel like I was dead. Like I was Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. But I'm still living.... My life has moved on. I don't read for colored girls and I don't teach it."

The well-traveled Shange, an on-again, off-again, on-again Texas resident, has done a lot in the 22 years since that opening. She's written three novels (and is currently working on a fourth), four books of poetry, plays, articles and screenplays. Then there's her latest endeavor, a cookbook titled If I Can Cook You Know God Can, about which she is visibly excited. Her eyes brighten; a sly grin slides over her face. "It's not so much a cookbook. I'm primarily interested in the relationship of food to African ancestry in the Western Hemisphere. I took recipes from specific places -- Salvador, South Carolina."

Though the book offers 34 recipes for things such as "Collard Greens to Bring You Money" and "You Know What That New Wife Makes for Brother's Stew," the food serves mostly as a vehicle for Shange to discuss the issues that interest her most. "The introduction is about an installation piece I saw in New York. It was rows and rows of refrigerators without doors that had bunches of collard greens in them and nothing else. And there were no doors. So there was no privacy. And that they were collard greens let me know that these were colored people's refrigerators. There was no ownership. It moved me so deeply that I never forgot it. And when I went to write about food, that was the first thing that came into my mind. There were people dealing with scarcity and lack of privacy and not being able to own because they were owned."

Shange's presence is much larger than her surprisingly petite frame. Her arms and hands are thin but muscled; she sits on her box, elbows on knees, feet planted before her in a wide 90-degree angle. And though her smile is fast and easy, her glimmering eyes (they really do glimmer) are hidden behind heavy blond braids.

She calls herself a "performing poet," but that's as close as she'll come to defining her work. And she won't perform at her Inprint-sponsored public appearance this week. Instead, she'll direct three actors in a staged reading from her "choreopoem" The Love Space Demands. The reading will be followed by an interview and a Q&A; ask about her cookbook, about the flying-fish controversy between Trinidad and Tobago, about her definition of "choreopoem," a theatrical form she invented. But don't ask about her best-known work; that was a lifetime ago.

These days, she says, she's so much more than the "the woman who wrote for colored girls." She's writing, teaching (at Prairie View A&M), preparing to send her daughter to college, thinking about buying this tender little house with the yellow living room and the billowy lace curtains. The weather outside is fine -- an absolutely perfect day. She glances at the window and smiles that smile. "It's good to be back in Texas."

-- Lee Williams

Ntozake Shange concludes Inprint's "The Play's the Thing: Three Playwrights & Their Work" series. 8 p.m. Monday, April 27. The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main, 520-0055. More info: 521-2026. $15; $10 for students and seniors.

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Lee Williams