You can feel the earth shifting – in the theater, at least – for a new generation of black 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. 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 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 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 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 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, D.C. 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.
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.
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,” Harris 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.
“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 “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, the pair, under Taibi Magar's direction, has toured it nationally and internationally.