Without question, African-American playwrights have profoundly impacted the landscape of American theatre. While there are several writers who are rightfully in classroom reading lists, we want to highlight some BIPOC writers you may not yet know.
Not only is he an award-winning playwright, but Carlyle Brown also founded the Minneapolis-based Carlyle Brown & Company, a group dedicated to diversity and innovative story-telling. Many of Brown’s plays revolve around telling history in new ways and from new perspectives. His play The African Company Presents Richard III dramatizes the true story of the African Grove Theatre Company and their pursuit of artistic equality as they present the story of Shakespeare’s hunchbacked king in 1820s New York City.
Lynn Nottage has the distinction of being the first female playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice. She won for Ruined (2009), which was inspired by her travels to Uganda where she interviewed women who lived in the refugee camps there. Then in 2017 she won again for Sweat, a delve into the politics and economics of labor in the American Rust Belt.
Tarell Alvin McCraney
In theatre, Tarell Alvin McCraney is best known for his Brother/Sister trilogy set in Louisiana: In the Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size, and C. Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet. McCraney himself has referred to the plays as a triptych; in an interview with Young Vic Theatre, he said: “Each play began a different way – inspired by my brothers and sisters and all of them are dedicated to them. They are about interconnected relationships and the complexities of those.” Outside of theatre, McCraney won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award in 2016 for Moonlight, which was based on his play Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.
A vibrant voice of Black Feminism, Ntozake Shange’s most famous play is For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf (at various times, the play has been nominated for a Tony Award, an Emmy Award, and a Grammy Award). Throughout her career, Shange explored gender and race dynamics through innovative dramaturgy and documenting the real-life experiences of black women in the United States. Besides theatre, Shange was a well-respected poet, novelist, and essayist.
Jocelyn Bioh started her Broadway career as an actress, and earned a Lucille Lortel nomination in 2017 for the play Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. She earned her MFA in Playwriting from Columbia University, inspired by the recognition that if she wanted better roles, she would have to write them. Her work has been noted for its comic qualities, despite heavy topics. School Girls, or The African Mean Girls Play and Nollywood Dreams both made The Kilroys’ List–an initiative that catalogues and celebrates plays from underrepresented artists groups.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has made a name for himself by creating dramatic narratives that investigate and criticize the dominant white tropes of theatre, culture, and society at large. His plays Appropriate and An Octoroon (a revision of the famous Dion Boucicault melodrama) both won the Obie Award in 2014. Beyond its positive reviews, An Octoroon was identified by a 2018 New York Times poll as the second-greatest play of the last 25 years.
One of the most awarded contemporary playwrights, Suzan-Lori Parks blends history, jazz, and social critique into her dynamic and challenging works. In 1994, The America Play premiered and immediately garnered critical praise for its use of non-traditional dramatic techniques to challenge historical narratives that are dominated by white voices. Topdog/Underdog won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Like many of her plays, Topdog/Underdog explores race, identity, family, and how someone finds their place in the world.
Adrienne Kennedy gained prominence during the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Her plays are heavily symbolic and surrealistic, and incorporate history, folk stories, and myth to comment on African-American history and identity. Her most famous play, Funnyhouse of a Negro, won an Obie Award in 1964. In 2008, Kennedy won an Obie Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2018 she was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.