You can feel the earth shifting — in the theater, at least — for a new generation of African American playwrights. Not that pathways to acclaim hadn’t been forged by such luminaries as Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson and Ntozake Shange. Of late, though, an extraordinary new talent convergence is riveting the contemporary American stage.
Driven partly by a recognition that artists of color often possess unique understandings of resistance to reactionary forces, the invigorated attention to this group of gifted writers has led to some remarkable productions, especially on the inexhaustibly charged subject of race. None of these increasingly in-demand theater artists — dramatists Jackie Sibblies Drury, Aleshea Harris, Jeremy O. Harris, Jocelyn Bioh, Antoinette Nwandu and Jordan E. Cooper — are widely known beyond rarefied circles. But in view of the blisteringly vivid work they are creating, a broader audience is within reach for any one of them.
Collectively, they are helping to break down a seemingly psychological limit in the world of institutional theater: one play per season by a writer of color. “We used to call it ‘the black slot,’ ” says Robert O’Hara, a director and playwright who made his debut in 1996 with “Insurrection: Holding History” at off-Broadway’s Public Theater. He has had his other plays, including “Bootycandy,” produced across the country ever since. Or, as Maria Manuela Goyanes, the new head of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, puts it: “Seeing just one black play in a season is not cool anymore. The tokenism is not cool anymore.”
As a result, a bounty of stunningly provocative plays — some conventionally drawn, many others mold-breaking — are reaching the stages of New York and beyond with powerful impact. To the ranks of such established black dramatists as Pulitzer winners Lynn Nottage (“Sweat”) and Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”), MacArthur fellow Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (“An Octoroon”) and Tarell Alvin McCraney, an Oscar winner for “Moonlight,” are other voices demanding a fresh look at racial insensitivity and American social and political inequities.
Drury’s “Fairview,” for instance, made such a splash last summer in a sold-out run at off-Broadway’s Soho Rep — and later at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California — that it is being mounted again with its original cast by another New York company in June. And Goyanes is making the play Woolly’s initial offering this fall, launching her first full season in Washington. In pricelessly inventive style, the notion of how whites view middle-class black family life comes in for scathing scrutiny. The play recently secured the $25,000 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, an influential award given annually to a work by a female dramatist, and it has been on many critics’ best-of-the-year lists.
“I have been really surprised by the positive reception that these weird plays have been getting in slightly more traditional places,” says Drury, who followed up “Fairview” recently with the widely applauded “Marys Seacole” at Lincoln Center Theater. Her approach to this true story — about a 19th-century Jamaican nurse who overcame prejudice to join Florence Nightingale as a medical aide in the Crimean War — was to reveal the myriad situations in which black women over the past century have been absorbed into society as nannies and other jobs in service of white women.
Drury and the other playwrights, all in their early 20s to mid-30s, are newly asserting their ownership of an ongoing American conversation about racial identity, one that has taken on urgency in the race-baiting age of Trumpism. In “Ain’t No Mo’,” for example, which had its official world premiere last month at the Public Theater, the 24-year-old Cooper ties uproarious vignettes to the concepts of reparations for slavery and a return of the black diaspora to Africa. Parks also debuted a scalding play at the Public last month, “White Noise,” with Daveed Diggs of “Hamilton” as a young man so depressed by police harassment that he asks a white friend to “buy” him, and thus secure physical protection from white oppression.
If more enlightened white Americans somehow thought the election of Barack Obama had taken race off the table, this gallery of writers forms a compelling chorus of dissent.
“For me, the play is the fear of tomorrow — it’s my fear of what tomorrow will be,” Cooper says of “Ain’t No Mo’,” which includes a sketch in which a black woman in chains emerges magically out of the dining room table of a rich, assimilated black family. Cooper began performing his own plays as a child in his Texas church. Later, when a white high school teacher told him and another black student there were no parts for them in the school play, he wrote and performed a play in response.
That agitating impulse has followed him into professional theater, where a liberal-leaning theatergoing public seems ever more attuned to the alarms being sounded by playwrights of color.
“Black artists have been writing some great works for years, and they couldn’t get into the right hands,” says Cooper, who plays a leading role in “Ain’t No Mo’ ” — that of an airline gate agent directing all remaining African Americans onto the last flight out of the country. “They understand the fight,” he says of his peers, “and they’re getting attention, because now, everyone’s on alert — when we’ve been on alert for the past 400 years.”
The breaks with traditional forms in some of these works speak to a desire to compel audiences to watch and listen with new eyes and ears.
For Jeremy O. Harris — who is a playwriting student at the Yale School of Drama — this goal reveals itself in the shocking, ironically plotted twists of “Slave Play,” one of the season’s most talked-about works. In the production staged by O’Hara last fall at the New York Theatre Workshop, audiences were confronted with interracial couples dressed as pre-Civil War Southerners and acting out master-slave sexual encounters. The scenes served as a prologue to a satire in which Harris enmeshed the couples as rueful, role-playing participants in a mock clinical experiment he called “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy.”
“Slave Play” has divided audiences: “The response has been hyper discordant at Yale,” the playwright says. “Students loved it and a good three-quarters of my teachers were turned off, confused by it or indifferent.”
The spectrum of reaction strikes Harris, 29, as predictable, given his desire to rattle an audience, a portion of whom go to the theater for that very sensation. “Something about this play’s recklessness excited people and invited them into a play that is scary,” he says.
The New Group, an off-Broadway company that has championed the plays of Thomas Bradshaw, another black writer with a gift for provocation, is finishing up the run of a play Harris wrote before “Slave Play”: “Daddy,” a portrait at near-epic length of the affair between a young black sculptor who grew up fatherless and an art collector who is rich, older and white. It’s a daringly transgressive work by a writer seeking to rewrite the rules of melodrama and explore the exquisite pressures on black artists in a white world.
“A lot of us were forming our identities in spaces that are mainly white spaces,” Harris says. “Jackie [Drury] went to Yale; Aleshea [Harris] went to CalArts. At this moment, especially, it has forced us to confront that we are black in a different way. Our blackness in white spaces is so much more present than it ever was.”
The range, too, of what these dramatists are producing has been stunning. From Jocelyn Bioh has come “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play,” a sardonic take first produced at off-Broadway’s MCC Theater, on the mirroring of plastic aspects of America’s beauty culture. From Loy A. Webb, “The Light,” also at MCC, concerning the romantic dissonance in the fragmenting relationship of a culturally hip black couple. Antoinette Nwandu, meanwhile, composed the hauntingly poetic “Pass Over,” first staged at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, then at Lincoln Center Theater in New York, as an elegy to dispossessed young black men existing in a Beckett-like vacuum of hope.
On the even more adventurous side, there has been the astounding phenomenon of “Underground Railroad Game,” by Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R. Sheppard, which turns audiences into middle-school students at an increasingly chaotic assembly on slavery. After unveiling it three years ago off-Broadway at Ars Nova, the pair, under Taibi Magar’s direction, has toured it nationally and internationally, including an engagement at Woolly Mammoth.
You can sense in some of the new work a restless wrath, an anger so deep it can’t be contained.
“It’s generational trauma and fatigue,” says Aleshea Harris, author of the acclaimed “Is God Is” and “What to Send Up When It Goes Down,” the latter a kind of ritualized memorial service for black men and women killed by police officers. The most shocking aspect of “What to Send Up,” performed late last year by off-off-Broadway’s Movement Theatre Company, was its declaration that part of the show was for black people only. Before evening’s end, nonblack audience members were asked by the cast to leave the theater so that black playgoers could remain for a special segment.
Through the closed doors of the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre, we could hear the reactions of those chosen to stay. Excluding white people! What a concept! About this separation, Harris is unapologetic. “I feel nonblack people of color feel a kinship with the piece,” she says. “And then with white people, there is a kind of breaking open, a confrontation the piece forces them to have. Even if you don’t burn crosses, there is a way you are complicit.”
For the playwright, the gesture was a step in the right direction, in a time crowded with wrong ones.
“It feels from my spirit that I am just fed up,” she says. “I don’t care what people are ready for. I think about what black people need.”