What’s in a name?

2011-05-06 09:38

Rumours abound that playwright Ntozake Shange has a South African connection.

After all, she has a Zulu name. But the 62-year-old has a far less exotic past.

She was born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey, to a social worker and a surgeon, and enjoyed an uneventful middle-class childhood.

Her Zulu link lies in a faux baptism in the Pacific Ocean in 1970 after two South African friends gave her a new name.

Ntozake means “she who brings her own things” and Shange means “one who walks with lions”.

According to a Newsday interview, Shange attributed the name change to her belief that she was living a lie: “[I was] living in a world that defied reality as most black people, or most white people, understood it – in other words, feeling that there was something that I could do, and then realising that nobody was expecting me to do anything because I was coloured and I was also female.”

Her new name is perhaps fitting for a woman who is a self-proclaimed black feminist and one whose 1975-produced play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, explores the shackles that bind women to their lots in life – and, most importantly, what is needed for them to escape those historical and socioeconomic bonds.

The play is presented as a series of dance sequences and 20 poems performed by seven women whose lives are inextricably linked.

Since its New York debut, the play has been continually revived on stages across the US and beyond, with the likes of Alfre Woodard and Lynn Whitfield among its alumni.

It has also ensured Shange a place in the canon of African-American literature and filled her cabinet with awards.

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