Tarell McCraney’s having a pretty good couple of years. He’s the playwright who last year won an Oscar for writing the daring screenplay for the exquisite movie Moonlight, and next year he’ll see his play Choir Boy open on Broadway.
He’s also part of a long tradition of African-American playwrights who have long been at the forefront of pushing the art form of the American theater into new artistic, political, and popular territory. Whether the plays are doggedly realistic, bitingly satirical, or wildly expressionistic, the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library has on its shelves a variety of examples from this tradition that are well worth reading. A selective compendium follows.
The first African-American playwright to reach Broadway with a non-musical play was Willis Richardson with The Chip Woman’s Fortune in 1923, a play you don’t hear about too much anymore. But Lorraine Hansberry was the first African-American woman to hit Broadway (collaborating with Lloyd Richards, a black director), and the play she took there in 1959 has been enormously influential. A searing family drama about class and race and community pride, A Raisin in the Sun is a cornerstone of American literature and continues to dialogue with successive plays and writers to this day.
As disquieting as the economic realities exposed by Hansberry were, the naturalism and domestic setting of her play made her uncompromising vision of the world digestible to a broad audience. Just a few years later, the playwright LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) took a very different approach. His 1964 play Dutchman is starkly allegorical and viscerally violent, following the tumultuous interaction between a white woman and a black man on a subway car.
James Baldwin, of course, is a colossal figure in American thought and literature, known primarily for his bracing prose. But he also wrote plays. Most notable is his 1964 play Blues for Mister Charlie, a history play inspired by the horrific murder of Emmett Till.
Vastly different in style is Funnyhouse of a Negro by Adrienne Kennedy, which shared the Obie award with Dutchman in 1964. Ambitious and exhilarating and occasionally exhausting, Kennedy’s play about racism and stereotypes is absurdist and dreamlike, featuring masks and hair loss and an enormous statue of Queen Victoria. Even though she emerged on the scene decades ago, Kennedy is still relevant; the University of Toledo produced Funnyhouse as recently as 2003, and her latest play He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box just opened in New York last month.
Meanwhile, Charles Gordone was the first African-American playwright to receive the Pulitzer Prize for drama, in 1970, for his play No Place to Be Somebody. Inspired by what he observed in his job as a bartender at a Greenwich Village watering hole, the play’s story of struggling urbanites chasing broken dreams seems descended from Hansberry and O’Neill, but with the sordid and flashy elements of gangsters and gunplay mixed in to goose the action.
Gordone’s play has a rough poetry to it, but for a play that takes lyricism to a whole other level check out Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf. Shange calls this theatrical work, a collection of twenty poetic and idiosyncratically punctuated monologues, a choreopoem, because each character’s speech – some about very difficult subjects and upsetting experiences – is composed to be paired with music and choreography.
Samm-Art Williams’s 1978 play Home was originally produced by the Negro Ensemble Company and transferred to Broadway where it was nominated for a Tony. Like some of the other plays on this list, Home – a kind of staged bildungsroman – chronicles the experiences of a character who enters an urban milieu and is buffeted by crime and economic woes and poor choices. What differentiates the play from a lot of serious issue-oriented theater is its sense of humor and its ultimately sunny outlook; this protagonist, when things are going poorly, merely hypothesizes that God must be “on vacation in Miami.”
Charles Fuller’s 1982 Pulitzer-Prize-winning A Soldier’s Play, by contrast, doesn’t have much humor, but it does do interesting things with genre, appropriating the conventions of a murder mystery to explore violent bigotry and internalized racism. With its use of flashbacks and multiple locations, Fuller’s play is thoroughly cinematic, and it made an effortless leap to the screen in a film adaptation featuring Denzel Washington.
Before George C. Wolfe became one of the most celebrated and influential theatrical directors in the country, shepherding major works by other writers like Tony Kushner to the stage and running the Public Theatre, he wrote The Colored Museum, an exuberant and bitingly satirical series of sketches best remembered for “The Last Mama-On-The-Couch Play,” an irreverent parody of A Raisin in the Sun.
There are few more towering figures in American theater than the playwright August Wilson. His ten-play oeuvre, The Pittsburgh Cycle, chronicles the twentieth-century black American experience decade by decade in plays that range from rambling kitchen-sink naturalism to magic realism while always maintaining a remarkable tonal unity. Probably the most famous of these plays is Fences, which Denzel Washington turned into an award-winning film.
Encouraged in college to become a playwright by James Baldwin, Suzan-Lori Parks exploded onto the scene with early plays like The America Play, which established her as someone who writes for the stage with a grammar and orthography that are all her own. She explores about race and America and history by approximating a heightened version of Black English and telling unconventionally theatrical stories about characters with evocative names and symbolic resonance.
With two actors playing multiple roles, Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith explores how being dark-skinned or light-skinned influences its characters’ experiences of the pressures exerted by race and class – and shapes their relationships with one another. Orlandersmith is currently in New York performing a new play of hers, Until the Flood, about the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
Lydia Diamond often writes about affluent African-Americans, in plays that typically open with congenial interactions among friends and colleagues until conflicts over issues like race and poverty boil to the surface. Check out her play Stick Fly.
And Passing Strange, an acclaimed musical by a playwright and performer who calls himself Stew, combines autobiography, allegorical drama and rock & roll into a highly entertaining mélange.
One of the most significant writers in the American theater today is Lynn Nottage, a prolific and eclectic playwright who’s also the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama twice: in 2009 for Ruined, a riff on Brecht’s Mother Courage that interrogates the human capacity for resilience and compromise amidst the unrelenting brutality of wartime in Congo; and in 2017 for Sweat, a portrait of working-class malaise in the 21st-century American heartland.
The playwright Katori Hall has written a number of plays and won several awards, but thus far has attracted the most attention for her slyly metaphysical two-hander The Mountaintop, which imagines an interaction between Martin Luther King and a hotel housekeeper on the night before his assassination. Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett played the roles on Broadway, and the play helped initiate a conversation about theatrical representation of race when another theater produced the play with a white actor in the King role.
Thomas Bradshaw, meanwhile, is a provocateur, writing plays about violence, sexual aberrations, and racism that are designed to make the audience uncomfortable. His (possibly ironically titled) play Intimacy, about pornography, is no exception.
And then there’s one of the most striking success stories of the recent American theater, the self-made writer/director/actor Tyler Perry. He went from writing, self-producing, and starring in his own plays at community theaters to making feature films and being named the highest paid person in entertainment by Forbes magazine. But his plays are where it all began, and several are available in their theatrical form on DVD from the library, including Diary of a Mad Black Woman, The Marriage Counselor, Madea’s Big Happy Family, The Haves and the Have Nots, Neighbors From Hell, and Madea On the Run.