Page to Stage: Black Playwrights Who Bring Stories to Life

In honor of Black History Month, we want to honor some black playwrights who have brought wonderful stories to life. Read on to learn more about these playwrights.

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Play covers of "Topdog/Underdog," "Fences," "A Raisin in the Sun," and "A Strange Loop"

In honor of Black History Month, we are honoring some of the most influential black writers in history. Specifically, we are taking a look at some important black playwrights. These writers developed some exciting stories that then got to be brought to life on stage. That allows written work to be enjoyed in a new way and witnessed by hundreds of people at once.

Many of these playwrights have used their plays to tell unique stories about black people and shine a light on problems in society. In addition, these playwrights have received high recognition for their work, including Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prizes. Here are some black playwrights with admirable bodies of works that you should acknowledge.

August Wilson

August Wilson has been considered one of the greatest American playwrights in history and has left a large impact on the modern theater world. Wilson’s plays focus on the African American experience in a variety of ways, often demonstrating the struggles that African Americans face. He wanted to create authentic storytelling. His main group of plays is called The Pittsburgh Cycle, which is a group of ten plays that each take place in a different decade of the 20th century.

"Fences" play cover, with a yellow fence on green grass.

One of Wilson’s most notable plays from this collection is Fences, a play about a family in the 1980s dealing with inner strife. This play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play and was turned into a Best Picture nominated film. This recognition demonstrates the significance of his work. Other notable plays of his include The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. His plays show some harsh truths about society and his accomplishments will never be forgotten.

Lorraine Hansberry

Even though Hansberry died when she was only 34, she crafted quite a legacy in a short amount of time. Hansberry is most known for her play A Raisin in the Sun. This play is about a black family in Chicago that is suffering from financial and housing troubles. The play was the first Broadway play written by a black woman, as well as the first with a black director. It was nominated for four Tony awards, turned into movies and a musical, and is taught in classes around the country.

"A Raisin in the Sun" play cover, with Lorraine Hansberry standing on the cover.

Her second Broadway play was The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window. This play is about bohemian life in Greenwich Village and centers around two Jewish characters. While not as successful as her first play, it had a successful Broadway run, with two revivals and talked about important social topics of the time. While we wish Hansberry would have time to do more with her writing we appreciate what she has done.

Suzan-Lori Parks

With a long list of plays on her resume, Suzan-Lori Parks has clearly accomplished a lot. Her most notable play is Topdog/Underdog, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. That win made Parks the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play is about two African-American brothers who are both poor and are trying to find something better for themselves, in work and in personal lives.

"Topdog/Underdog" play cover, with a dog's head both right side up and upside down.

The play currently holds the Tony award for Best Revival of a Play and the New York Times recently called it one of the best American plays in 25 years. Parks was able to make a name for herself with this play through what it showed about race and brotherhood. Her other plays include White Noise, The America Play, and Venus, and she also revised and adapted the opera Porgy and Bess. Parks has done decades of great work that has entertained many people, on and off Broadway.

Lynn Nottage

There is only one woman who has won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice. That woman is Lynn Nottage. Nottage received her first Pulitzer Prize for her play Ruined. This play takes place in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the different factions during the civil war. Ruined explores a topic that many people may not be educated enough about and demonstrates why this was an important event. After this play her second Pulitzer Prize was for her play Sweat.

"Ruined" play cover, with a woman in the dark standing in a doorway to light.

This play is about working class people at a factory in Pennsylvania. The play explores the lives of blue collar workers, as well as topics related to race. In addition, Nottage wrote the play, Clyde’s, which recently premiered on Broadway, as well as the book for MJ, the Michael Jackson musical, which is currently on Broadway. Nottage explores different black communities with her work, and her recognition shows that these plays have left a mark on the public. 

Jeremy O. Harris

Currently, the record for most Tony nominations for a non-musical play is held by Slave Play, which received twelve nominations. The play was written by the talented Jeremy O. Harris in his Broadway debut. The play is about three interracial couples who go through a unique couples therapy to confront their fading attraction. As the title suggests there are uncomfortable conversations and situations about racial tensions in this play, and Harris wanted to create that feeling of discomfort and confrontation.

"Slave Play" play cover, with a tall house in the background

It is a very unique play that received nominations partially due to its bravery. In addition to this play and the other small plays he has written, he was also a co-writer for the film Zola and was nominated for two Tonys for producing Ain’t No Mo and the revival of The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Harris started strong in his work, and will hopefully continue at that level in the future.

Michael R. Jackson

A Strange Loop was lauded as an exciting new musical that was not afraid of confronting harsh topics. Its playwright, Michael R. Jackson, is always willing to go the extra mile. A Strange Loop was Jackson’s breakout musical, and told the story of a gay black man writing a musical about a gay black man writing a musical about a gay black man, and so on.

"Strange Loop" play cover, with a man opening curtains underneath his head, with the same image but smaller underneath the curtains and so on.

The musical won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best New Musical. After this musical, Jackson’s next project was White Girl in Danger which is a satire on black characters in some television shows being pushed into the background. Jackson is providing commentary on race in society in his musicals, and he likely will not stop anytime soon.

All of these playwrights have been important to the theater world and have written some thrilling plays. A lot of the plays mentioned have reputations that precede them. They are important plays to read and/or see, and we should applaud the fantastic talents of these playwrights.

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