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Ntozake Shange and Kahil El'Zabar
New Jersey native Ntozake Shange, neé Paulette Williams, has pursued the spoken word as a communal art form since the early '70s. Far from a hermetic wordsmith, she's brought her stories to the masses as theater maven, dancer, and poetry-slam champ. While her in-your-face treatment of controversial subject matter has drawn mixed responses from critics worldwide, the stage production of her most popular work, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf — a celebration of female power and an indictment of African-American males who abuse or abandon their women — earned numerous industry props, including a 1977 Obie Award.

The fiery language of Shange's poetry, theater, and short-story works not only matches the raw candor of her thematic content, but also resounds with a lyrical, rhythm-deep punch that's as musical on the page as any CD blasting from a boombox. Check “Blood Rhythms-Blood Currents-Black Blue n Stylin' “: “… electrified/ blues/ boltin-the-lynchin-tree/ n-tremblin-n-chirren/ blues/ defyin the sound of gravity/ for a people singin'/ about the sashay of blood rhythms set free.” Bold, stirring, vivid, emancipated — it's only natural that Shange thrives in the open-ended multimedia format, where her message can be heard on many levels at once.

Opening the second installment of Cultural Odyssey Festival's six-week program, Ntozake Shange will collaborate with Chicago percussionist/composer Kahil El'Zabar on “ellington is not a street.” Amid the vacuous hype surrounding myriad Duke Ellington tributes this year, the Shange-El'Zabar partnership, which weaves a civil rights movement-era coming-of-age tale into an image-rhythmic tapestry, promises a poetic elegance worthy of its namesake.

Ntozake Shange and Kahil El'Zabar appear with one-man band Barry “Shabaka” Henley Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 7-9, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 10, at 3 p.m. at the Lorraine Hansberry Theater, 620 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $12-15; call 273-5463.

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