The lady in red enters. She describes a woman wearing orange butterflies, aqua sequins, and silk roses. The woman wandered down Hoover Street in Los Angeles, looking for rides. She would let her thigh show from underneath her skirt. Even though she walked slowly to allow men to gaze at her, she never smiled back or acknowledged their catcalls. She smelled like Jack Daniels and honey. She was "hot / a deliberate coquette" (46). She wanted to be unforgettable and create an ache in men who were prideful enough to desire her. The sad women with stretch marks watched her from behind their curtains and directed their wrath at her. She was delighted to be an object of desire, and her suitors were happy when she chose them. The lady in red has been lying on the floor, but as the lights fade up, she sits up and continues her story.
At 4:30 in the morning, she rises to draw a bath and wash off the glitter, the oil, and the musk. She wants his smell gone, too. Now, she is common, ordinary, and back to being herself. She is a "brown braided woman / with big legs & full lips" (48). She walks back to her male guest and tells him he needs to leave. She has work to do and she does not want to have a man around. She does not ever want to see him again, which should be fine since he already got what he came for.
Sometimes, her men would curse about "crazy bitches" (48) or just sit there, shocked, after she would cruelly try to send them home. No one has ever said anything rude back to her, but men who desired her sexually did not really care. Afterwards, she was just a normal girl, "fulla the same malice / livid indifference as a sistah / worn from supportin a wd be hornplayer" (49). The men would leave in a hurry, and then she cleaned up her tinsel and glitter and put her roses away. She would write about her exploits in her diary and then, cry herself to sleep.
The lady in blue says she used to live in the world but now only lives in Harlem, and her universe is only six blocks. She used to walk in the Pacific, imagining the ancient waters from Accra and Tunis. Now, though, she walks in filthy puddles near the hydrant. She once had oceans full of life, but now the water is stagnant, pooling around drunk old men and whiskey bottles. She can take the train anywhere and still be a stranger. She yells out to a man to leave her alone and that she does not want him to kiss her. She comes home at dusk and stays close to the curb.
The lady in yellow enters and waits for a bus. The lady in blue continues, saying she hopes no young man will find her pretty around midnight. The lady in purple enters, also waiting for a bus. The lady in blue says it would be no good to meet a “tall short black brown young man fulla his power” (51) in her six-block universe of brick walls, women hanging out of their windows, kids laughing, nasty smells, and men cursing.
A man starts following the lady in orange, but he turns out to be the lady in blue. The lady in blue (disguised as a man) yells and antagonizes the lady in orange. Then, the "man" turns back into the lady in blue, instructing the lady in orange not to mind him and continue on her own way. The lady in blue says that when she used to live in the world, she was polite and sweet, but now, she cannot bring herself to be nice to anyone in this “six blocks of cruelty / piled up on itself” (53).
The lady in purple joins the ladies in blue, yellow, and orange. She starts by describing them as three friends who share their laughs and lives. They remember a time when they all were interested in the same man, but he only could choose one of them. The other two were amused but spurned his residual advances. The one who loved him, and whom he chose, smiled and wondered if her friends could hold out, because he was just what both of them were looking for.
The man bided his time and waited until the romance faded. He appeared less and less, but always expected her kindness. She did not know why he was so withdrawn, but one day, she found the rose she left on his pillow on her friend’s desk. The friend said she did not know what was going on, because the man said he was free. She does not want to hurt her friend, but she knows how wonderful this man is and she needs him. The friends hug and cry and go to confront the man, whom they find with another woman.
The women cry and one holds the other’s head on her lap. They are like sisters, and there is so much love between them.
In "one," the lady in red describes the desire to be desired, but that the attention men shower upon her is ultimately unfulfilling. She underlines the superficiality of physical attraction by describing her outward adornments: her clothing, hair, and her smell, all designed to attract men. As she saunters down the street, she oozes sexuality and confidence, making each man who approaches her feel special and unique. This woman seems to have voluntarily chosen casual flings in lieu of a committed relationship.
However, as the poem transitions from day to night, the woman goes from a mythical figure to an ordinary person. She washes off all of her glitter and becomes "herself / ordinary / brown braided woman / with big legs & full lips" (48). She kicks her male visitors out of her home quickly. The men are surprised when they see her in the daylight, "full of the same malice / livid indifference as a sistah worn from supportin a wd be hornplayer (49)." Her tools of seduction are merely a costume.
After she is alone, she writes about her exploits in her diary and then cries herself to sleep. This last line reveals the emptiness of her life. Critic Sandra Hollin Flowers notes that at the end of the poem, "we see that all along the woman has known that sensuality at its worst, which is what it has been reduced to in her case, is merely a surrogate for mutual caring and understanding."
In "i usedta live in the world," Shange depicts the modern dreariness, barrenness, and cruelty of Harlem. She based this poem on her own very lonely time in the city. The lady in blue draws contrasts between life inside and outside Harlem. In the wide world, she feels powerful, connected to nature, and full of life. In Harlem, she feels isolated, "remaining a stranger" (50) even though her "universe is six blocks."
Shange creates a mood of claustrophobia as she repeats the phrase "six blocks." In Harlem, the world keeps getting smaller: It is "six blocks of cruelty / piled up on itself / a tunnel / closin" (53). The hopelessness of her environment takes its toll on her psyche, making her mean, spiteful, and incapable of pleasantries. Although in many of the poems in the play the woman come together and support each other, this one evokes a is a profound sense of angst and alienation.
The title of "pyramid" comes from the tangled relationship between one man and three different women. Three close friends are attracted to the same man. He falls in love with one of them and she is head-over-heels in love with him, as well. When the main romance wanes, however, the "chosen one" discovers that her man has been cheating on her with her friend. They confront him and it turns out he is with yet another woman. The poem ends with a celebration, however mournful, of female relationships as "she held her head on her lap / the lap of her sisters soakin up tears / each understandin how much love stood between them / how much love between them / love between them / love like sisters" (56).
Flowers articulates the contradictory relationships between the women. On one hand, the three women are like sisters and the man's behavior is painful and humiliating for each of them. They feel compassion for each other as they each experience rejection. On the other hand, there is some degree of ambivalence and competition before the heartbreaking revelation of infidelity. Flowers cites the incident with the rose as particularly painful and points out "the pain women inflict upon each other in the name of love." The "love between them" only emerges after the man has left all of their lives and there is nothing left for them to compete over.