Ifa Bayeza had a homecoming of sorts at Princeton Public Library on Friday night, March 22. The author, artist, playwright and professor, who was born in Trenton and graduated from Lawrence High School, read a selection of her latest book Some Sing, Some Cry, to an audience that included
family and old friends.
Representing the family in the library’s Community Room were Ms. Bayeza’s Aunt Vera, and her cousin, former Princeton Borough Mayor Yina Moore. Several of her late mother’s old friends took up a row of seats and looked on proudly as Ms. Bayeza read from the book on which she collaborated with her older sister, Ntozake Shange, famous for her play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf.
Ms. Bayeza was Wanda Williams and Ms. Shange was Paulette Williams when they were growing up, two of the four children of physician Paul T. Williams and his wife, social worker and college professor Eloise. Asked after the reading why she changed her name, Ms. Bayeza, who graduated from Harvard University and teaches at Brown, said she and her siblings came of age during the black cultural revolution.
“Part of it was claiming our heritage, our own rite of passage,” she said. “I was embracing an Africanness that I didn’t know, but I felt. But I still keep the essence of Wanda.”
Ms. Bayeza’s appearance at the library is the culmination of its programs focused on the Emancipation Proclamation and Women’s History Month. “This ties everything together,” said programming director Janie Hermann, before asking Ms. Moore to introduce her cousin. Obviously proud to have the opportunity, Ms. Moore recalled the Williams household as “a home filled with love, joy, and absolute intellectual fervor.”
Some Sing, Some Cry is a 600-page novel that spans 200 years and seven generations of women in an African-American family. The sisters wrote sporadically over a 15-year period, and included stories they had learned as part of family lore. “It’s a story of music, family, relationships, and a lot of young love,” Ms. Bayeza said before reading. “It’s also a story of movement, of dance, of African people through space and time.”
She and Ms. Shange divided the book into eight parts, some of which they wrote together but most of which they did separately. Asked about the challenges of tying so many decades together, she said, “Each section could have been a novel. We had to edit the characters.”
Ms. Bayeza chose to read a section of the book “in honor of coming home,” about the great migration, the Harlem renaissance, “and something my parents loved to do, which was throw a party,” she said. An animated performer, she sang, imitated a little girl making “choo choo” noises, and took on a Russian accent as she portrayed various characters in the chapter.
The author of the acclaimed play The Ballad of Emmett Till, Ms. Bayeza has been enmeshed in drama since childhood. Asked by the audience what kinds of voices influenced her most, she said, “My mother was a fantastic storyteller. We went to drama all the time. My dad was an amateur magician. I did my first play in fourth grade. I read Our Town at 12, and the fact that a writer had created a universe in an empty space was a marvel to me.”
Another play that left an impression on her was Brecht’s Mother Courage, which she saw at McCarter Theatre. “I thought, ‘Wow! You can be political!’,” Ms. Bayeza recalled. While McCarter was the subject, Ms. Moore took the opportunity to ask her cousin about the possibility of The Ballad of Emmett Till being staged there. The play has been produced in several places and will be staged at a theater festival this summer, Ms. Bayeza replied. Getting to the point, she said, “I have had a number of conversations with Emily [Mann, McCarter’s artistic director]. But I’m waiting for another one.”
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