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To kick off Black History Month, we’re highlighting a few talented Black playwrights who have left their marks on the world of theatre – and on the entertainment industry as a whole. The list below contains a handful of historical pioneers, alongside new writers to watch.
American playwright August Wilson has been called the “theater’s poet of Black America.” Notable works include a collection of ten plays – called The Pittsburgh Cycle (or The Century Cycle) – which highlight Black communities in the 20th century.
Wilson also penned Fences (1987) and The Piano Lesson (1990), both of which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, as well as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988). Alongside being inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2006, Wilson has had two plays adapted into award-winning films – Fences (2016) and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020).
A playwright and writer, Lorraine Hansberry has the distinct honor of being the first Black female author to have her work performed on Broadway. In A Raisin in the Sun, Hanberry discusses the lives of Black Americans during the height of racial segregation in Chicago. This is arguably her most notable work. Among other honors, Hansberry won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award at age 29; she was the first Black dramatist, fifth woman, and youngest ever playwright to win the award.
Amiri Baraka created poetry, drama, fiction, essays and music criticism. Alongside his writings, he taught at several universities and won numerous awards for his work – including the PEN/Beyond Margins Award in 2008 for Tales of the Out and the Gone. With many describing his works as “defining texts” for Black culture, Baraka discussed black liberation, general societal commentary, music and literature.
James Baldwin wrote everything from essays and novels to plays and poems. His complex works often explored themes including social and psychological pressures; toxic masculinity; and race and class relations. Baldwin typically penned stories with Black protagonists, many of whom were gay or bisexual – long before the gay liberation movement got off the ground.
In recent years, Baldwin’s works have seen a resurgence. An unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, was made into a movie, and I Am Not Your Negro (2016), based on Baldwin’s work, was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Academy Awards. Another of his novels, If Beale Street Could Talk, was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film of the same name.
A poet, social activist, playwright, columnist, and novelist, Langston Hughes is often associated with jazz poetry and has been dubbed a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to his prolific poetry, Hughes wrote a handful of plays and short stories, alongside nonfiction works. From 1942 to 1962, during the beginning and pinnacle of the civil rights movement in the U.S., Hughes also wrote a weekly column in a leading black newspaper, The Chicago Defender.
Alice Childress was a novelist, playwright, and actress, who often wrote, produced, and published her own works – a rarity in the time for both Black creators and women.
Some of her most famous plays include Trouble in Mind (1955); Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White (1966); and Mojo: A Black Love Story (1970). Alongside her writings, Childress was heavily involved in social issues; she even formed an off-Broadway union for actors.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, named a MacArthur Genius in 2016, began his career with 2011’s Neighbors, a play about a group of Black actors that move into a white neighborhood. Other works include Appropriate (2015) and Girls (2019).
A two-time Obie winner, Jacobs-Jenkins is well-known for works containing dark humor, social commentary, and iconic plot twists/narrative surprises.
The daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, Jocelyn Bioh began her career starring in plays and musicals penned by notable Black creatives before shifting into playwriting herself. Her play Nollywood Dreams, about the 90’s film industry in Lagos, Nigeria, was selected for the Kilroy’s List in 2015. Other works include School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play and Happiness and Joe and a musical called The Ladykiller’s Love Story.
Currently, Bioh works with the Manhattan Theatre Club and Atlantic Theater Company.
Best known for her works Pass Over and Breach: a manifesto on race in america through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate, Antoinette Nwandu was included on both the 2016 and 2017 Kilroy’s Lists for her plays. Breach follows a Black woman during her unplanned pregnancy and addresses ways to overcome self-hatred, while Pass Over examines the ravages of racial injustice for two Black men.
A graduate of Harvard College and Edinburgh University, Nwandu also received her MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU Tisch.
If you’re looking to support Black creatives and educate yourself on their contributions to the world of theatre, here are a few companies, nonprofits, and collectives to check out.
From artandpractice.org: “Conceived and founded by artist Mark Bradford, activist Allan DiCastro, and philanthropist and art collector Eileen Harris Norton, Art + Practice collaborates with a nonprofit social service provider to support the needs of 18 to 24-year-old foster youth who are transitioning into adulthood, and provide free access to museum-curated contemporary art celebrating artists of color. Based in Leimert Park, Los Angeles, this art and social service organization has a free-access exhibition space, organizes a public program space for moderated artist talks, panel discussions, film screenings, lectures, and workshops and offers housing opportunities and case management to foster youth.”
From forfreedoms.org: “An organization led by artist Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, the group seeks to increase creative civic engagement, discourse and direct action. Working with artists and organizations, their goal is to center the voices of artists in public discourse, expand what participation in a democracy looks like, and reshape conversations about politics.
In fall 2020, the initiative announced the 2020 Awakening campaign centered around the new four freedoms of awakening, listening, healing, and justice, inviting artists to participate in the project.”
From Black Art Futures Fund: “Black Art Futures Fund (BAFF) is a collective of emerging philanthropists promoting the elevation and preservation of Black arts and culture. Through grant making, board-matching, and organization-to-donor cultivation, we seek to amplify and strengthen the future of Black art.”
From centerforblackliterature.org: “The Center for Black Literature was established to expand and enrich the public’s knowledge and appreciation of the value of black literature; to continue the tradition and legacy of the National Black Writers Conference; to serve as a voice, mecca, and resource for Black writers; and to study the literature produced by people of the African diaspora. The Center serves roughly 3,500 people yearly through its various programs.”
From bfallegiance.com: “The Black Film Allegiance is a 501c3 nonprofit organization building visibility for underrepresented creatives. We provide space for talented creatives to showcase their projects, find mentorship and connect with industry professionals.”
You can also find a comprehensive listing of resources supporting Black writers, actors, and creatives on the Writers Guild Foundation website: wgfoundation.org/organizations-supporting-black-creatives
Happy Black History Month to you all! Spend some time, not only in the following weeks but all year long, exploring works by Black creators – and supporting organizations that do so, as well.