Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Alan Bennett etc. These were the names that you would often find tucked neatly into the British and American curriculum. In Western History, playwriting has been widely misunderstood as a white man’s area of expertise, but my time at Queen Mary, and a semester in America, introduced me to a wide range of innovative, exciting and often surprising work from which this list was born.
If you didn’t take an interest in drama beyond secondary school, or picked up a play since having to read Romeo & Juliet for English GCSE, it is likely that you may not have come across the types of plays or names that are included here, and you may find yourself surprised at the ways in which these plays can crossover into areas beyond drama. This list is by no means definitive. Think of it more as a guide to helping you find what you enjoy most. You may find that looking into one play may lead you to another that you like more… and another… and another…
For the journalists:
Anna Deavere Smith, Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities
In 1991, the connected deaths of a young African American boy and a young Hasidic man led to four days of riots and demonstrations in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Following this, Playwright and performer, Anna Deavere Smith, conducted and documented a series of interviews with over 50 members of the Black and Jewish communities in the area, then performed them verbatim – embodying the voices and mannerisms of each individual. Smith’s work often involves interviewing real people and developing performances with this type of research; blurring (or joining) the lines between journalism and theatre.
For the poets and the dancers:
Ntzoke Shange, For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf
If you wanted a copy of this work, you could probably find it under ‘theatre’ as well as ‘poetry’ and ‘dance’. The piece is built from a collection of 20 poems, each telling a story about ‘bein alive & bein a woman and bein colored’, told through seven characters – lady in brown, lady in yellow, lady in purple, lady in red, lady in green, lady in blue and lady in orange. Shange’s poetry often uses vernacular language and playful punctuation, which lends itself to vibrant and rhythmic theatrical performance.
For the engineers and historians:
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, An Octoroon
An Octoroon began as what Jacobs-Jenkins calls a ‘radical adaptation’ of the eponymous melodrama, by Dion Boucicault back in the 1860s, set on a 19th century plantation. Both versions of the play make use of elaborate stage effects to create ‘sensation scenes’, which might appeal to the engineers and technicians amongst us. In his work, Jacobs-Jenkins examines one of the most disturbing elements of performance history – blackface. In An Octoroon, he is very specific about the ethnicities of the actors playing each character, and there are moments where characters are seen ‘whiting up’ as well as being in blackface and redface. The work of Jacobs-Jenkins often utilises the theatre as a space to explore and address disturbing pasts and histories in ways you wouldn’t have imagined possible.
For the sociologists and psychologists:
Jeremy O. Harris, Slave Play
If you wanted to create something similar to Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, you’d have to write a play that examined sexuality, institutionalised racism and interracial relationships without holding back. At all. Stage the play so that there is a giant mirror facing the audience at all times. Then take it to a stage where the majority of patrons are wealthy, white, elderly folk. Slave Play attracted a lot of attention during what would be O. Harris’ broadway debut in 2019, and there is no doubt that it will be revisited as an important theatrical case study.
For the athletes and musicians:
Mojisola Adebayo, Muhammed Ali and Me
When the world gets on top of us, we seek courage within the strength of our heroes. Muhammed Ali and Me tells the story of a young girl growing up in foster care in the UK, who idolises Muhammed Ali. Through the fusion of music, poetry, song, dance, and boxing, Mojisola’s Adebayo’s play explores the impact that those we look up to can have on our upbringing. Adebayo has a rich and diverse pool of work that often explores identity, power, and social change. If you’re lucky enough to catch her in London, (her work as a specialist facilitator in Theatre of the Oppressed takes her all over the world), you can find her teaching at Queen Mary.
For the geographers:
Selina Thompson, salt.
In 2016, Selina Thompson embarked on a cargo ship to retrace the route of the Transatlantic Slave Triangle, with an unnamed fellow artist and filmmaker. She passed through Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, reflecting on the concept of ‘home’. In 2017, Selina Thompson invited an audience to partake in her contemplation, and salt premiered in London. Thompson uses wood, salt, water, glass and plants, to engage in rituals that assist her storytelling. Thompson’s work looks at Black British identity, and the important role ritual plays in the exploration of ancestry.
For the politicians:
Suzan Lori Parks, Red Letter Plays
It was James Baldwin who suggested that Suzan-Lori Parks explored playwriting back in the early 80s, and she hasn’t stopped since. Her ‘Red Letter Plays’ follow the social and economic struggles of a homeless mother of five illegitimate children. She often makes use of African American vernacular in her dialogue and her work centres around societal issues within America.
If I were to write out short introductions to every single playwright I wanted to put on this list, it would look more like a dissertation than an article. Below are a few additional names and plays to set you off on building your collection:
- August Wilson, Fences
- Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun
- Lynn Nottage, Sweat
- Jackie Sibblies Drury, Fairview
- Adrienne Kennedy, Funnyhouse of a Negro
- Amiri Baraka, The Dutchman
- Debbie Tucker Green, Born Bad
- Arinzé Kene, Misty
- Michaela Cole, Chewing Gum Dreams
- Kwame Kwei-Armah, Elmina’s Kitchen
- Natasha Gordon, Nine Night
- Winsome Pinnock, Leave Talking
- Inua Ellams, Barber Shop Chronicles
- Kemp Powers, One Night in Miami