Some of those stories are particularly visible in the culture right now; film versions of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson – who was discussed in that previous blog post – and Kemp Powers’s great-men-of-history play One Night in Miami are considered to be strong contenders for Oscar nominations this year.
But our survey left some great writers out, and more have risen to prominence in the intervening years. Here are some more theatrical visionaries who are worth your time.
The most glaring omission in our previous blog was Alice Childress. Her playwriting career, beginning in 1949, explored racial dynamics and highlighted nominally ordinary characters as distinctive and worthy of attention. After years of popular and critical neglect, Childress’s work is poised to claim some attention of its own; whenever New York theater eventually reopens post-pandemic, her backstage dramedy Trouble in Mind is scheduled to finally make its Broadway debut — just sixty-five years after she wrote it.
For a primer on other noteworthy twentieth-century Black playwrights – like Archie Shepp and Ed Bullins and OyamO – you could do worse than to devour the offerings in the Black Drama Anthology edited by Woodie King Jr. and Ron Milner: plays from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that scrutinize societal ills from systemic racism to the illegal drug trade to police violence, with tactics that include exuberant theatricality, gritty naturalism, soaring lyricism and subversive humor.
Speaking of subversive humor, Robert O’Hara is one of the twenty-first century’s masters of comic shock and raucous slapstick, as exemplified in his plays Barbecue and Bootycandy. Barbecue starts out as the most hilarious intervention you’ve ever been to before it turns out to be about other things entirely, and Bootycandy lampoons a collision between gay culture and Black culture with a heedless comic energy that flirts fearlessly with tastelessness.
Detroit-born Dominique Morisseau writes urgent, socially conscious plays about race and class and economic determinism. The cycle of three plays in The Detroit Project dramatizes the struggles of that city’s denizens under the pressure of crises like the 1967 riots and the 2008 recession.
Jackie Sibblies Drury turned heads with her 2012 play We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884 – 1915, and not just because the title has more words in it than an entire Samuel Beckett play. The metatheatrical script – which treats the audience to a rehearsal in which actors are struggling to devise the labored, well-intentioned, and doomed presentation of the title – explores issues of authority and history and representation as the white and Black actors become increasingly frustrated with the project and with each other.
But Drury went even further with her boundary-busting provocations in her play Fairview, which opens on an affluent, pleasantly funny, sitcom-friendly domestic scene and promptly goes nowhere you expect it to. More than a few audience members’ heads exploded, and for making that unapologetic mess Drury was justly rewarded with the Pulitzer.
Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play isn’t as paradigm-shifting as Fairview, and it didn’t win the Pulitzer. But it did go to Broadway, which – for a defiantly funny, unflinchingly confrontational play about antebellum plantation cosplay and BDSM sexuality – represents a decisive cultural shift of its own. Some people in the Slave Play audience loved it and some hated it, but nobody walked away unaffected by the play’s overstuffed bag of ideas about trauma, sex, interracial relationships, and white supremacy. And playwright Harris has emerged as a media-friendly force for good, leveraging his powers as an in-demand writer and a charming talk-show guest to get new Black audiences into theater seats and corporate development money into the hands of new Black creators.
There’s joy to be found in Michael R. Jackson’s semi-autobiographical and self-referential musical A Strange Loop, but there’s also plenty of trauma and rage. A funny, erudite, and brutally self-critical story about a New York theater usher trying to write a musical about a New York theater usher – the first number is called “Intermission Song” – A Strange Loop tells a compelling and theatrically inventive story about finding one’s self sexually and artistically while also dispensing robust opinions about Tyler Perry, James Baldwin, The Lion King, Whitney Houston, Zora Neale Hurston, Christianity, and Liz Phair. The show is ambitious and self-indulgent and too much and brilliant, and it richly deserved the Pulitzer it won in 2020.
Meanwhile, in Pipeline – recently produced at the Cleveland Play House – Morisseau uses the simple but fraught story of a public schoolteacher sending her son off to private school to depict the tightrope these characters walk when trying to evade the fatalistic pitfalls society sets up for them.
You can see the seeds of O’Hara’s restless brazenness in his earlier play Insurrection, a time-traveling investigation of the enslaved Nat Turner’s rebellion that was advertised as a mashup of Roots and The Wizard of Oz.
When Branden Jacobs-Jenkins exploded onto the scene in 2010 with the brash minstrelsy pastiche of his play Neighbors, he was the theater world’s bold young rebel; now, ten short years later, in a post-Slave Play universe, he seems almost like a respectable elder. But his plays still push buttons and demolish assumptions with a vivid and dynamic sense of dramaturgy. His Appropriate confronts America’s history of brutal lynchings through the surprising vehicle of an all-white family living-room drama. And in his masterpiece An Octoroon – a self-aware riff on Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama of a similar title – Jacobs-Jenkins puts himself in the action as one of the characters (and also appeared in the New York production as an actor) for a stunningly theatrical investigation of race, art, and identity.
Antoinette Nwandu sparked hundreds of vigorous conversations – and caught the eye of Spike Lee – in 2017 when her play Pass Over premiered in Chicago. Borrowing the ominous and quotidian minimalism of Waiting for Godot to tell the story of young Black men haunted by the omnipresent threat of death, Nwandu’s play creates a thoughtful and incendiary theater for a post-Ferguson America.
This library’s holdings are just a sampling of the vibrant and crucial writing for the theater that’s happening today. There are other playwrights – like Eisa Davis, Pearl Cleage, Kirsten Childs, Kia Corthron, Kara Lee Corthron, Aleshea Harris, Jocelyn Bioh, Marcus Gardley, James Ijames, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Idris Goodwin, and Ike Holter – who are making theatre that builds a future out of grappling with a present that’s a legacy of our past.