10 Contemporary Black Playwrights You Should Know
In honor of Black History Month, we are celebrating black excellence by highlighting some of the very best black artists producing and creating work today. This week we’re focusing on 10 contemporary black playwrights you should know:
Named a MacArthur Genius in 2016, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is on his way to being a household name but has been well-known in Boston for some time now. Company One first produced his work in 2011 with Neighbors, a play about a group of rowdy and shameless black actors that move into a white neighborhood. SpeakEasy Stage Company produced Jacob-Jenkins Appropriate in Fall 2015, just before Company One and ArtsEmerson collaborated for a sold-out run of An Octoroon — Jacobs-Jenkins won Obies for both works when they were in New York. His work is renowned for its dark humor, explosive surprises, and commentary on race in America.
Marcus Gardley is a poet-playwright with an impressive scope, having been compared to August Wilson, Frederico García Lorca, and Tennesse Williams. He’s known for epic tales that subvert classical works like the Odyssey, Tartuffe, and The House of Bernarda Alba. Gardley’s God’s Closet series has been produced through a reading series by The Front Porch Arts Collective in residence at Central Square Theater. Their final two staged readings of his works …and Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi and A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes are on February 12 and March 19. Front Porch plans to bring to life Gardley’s black odyssey in a co-production with Central Square Theater in the 2018-19 season. black odyssey transfers Odysseus’ journey to the United States, where he is attempting to get back home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
A Broadway actress turned playwright, Jocelyn Bioh is a daughter of Ghanaian immigrants who grew up in Washington Heights. Bioh starred in plays off-Broadway by notable African-American playwrights (including some others on this list!) before beginning to pen her own. Her play Nollywood Dreams, about the 90’s film industry in Lagos, Nigeria, was selected for the Kilroy’s List in 2015. She is known for her poignant comedies, including School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play and Happiness and Joe. She also wrote a musical featuring songs by Cee Lo Green called The Ladykiller’s Love Story. @Jjbioh
Why do you know that name? Probably because he won some Academy Awards recently. McCraney co-wrote Best Picture-winning Moonlight, based on his own play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and took home his own Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2016. In July 2017, Tarell Alvin McCraney was appointed the chair of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, where he himself received his MFA. McCraney’s work can next be seen in the area with Company One’s production of Wig Out! at the OBERON from April 27 to May 13, a dazzling play about the fierce and fascinating world of competitive Ballroom drag.
Mfonsio Udofia was recently featured in a New York Times article with Jocelyn Bioh (more info above) about Daughters of African Immigrants who became playwrights. Udofia’s parents hail from Nigeria, though she grew up in the U.S., attending Wellesley College and then receiving her MFA from the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. Udofia is known for her still progressing Ufot Cycle, which features five plays already, with the sixth Her Portmanteau to premiere this spring in Pasadena. She also works with Oregon Shakespeare Festival as a part of its Play On! program, where she is translating Othello into a more modern dialect. Udofia will next be seen locally at Wellesley’s African Women’s Leadership Conference in March.
Robert O’Hara is another Boston-raised (if Ohio-born) playwright. He attended Tufts University, where he originally came in to study political science and law, but discovered a love of Drama and changed his major. O’Hara is known for his daring themes and broad scope. The play that brought him recognition Insurrection: Holding History, for example, is about a time-traveling young, gay black man and his 189-year-old grandfather who visit Nat Turner during his rebellion. O’Hara’s work was most recently seen at SpeakEasy Stage in the 2015-16 Season with Bootycandy and with Lyric Stage Company’s production of Barbecue last season.
She might be 86 years-old, but Adrienne Kennedy still has things to say, as proven with the recent New York premiere of a play (her first in a decade), He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box. Kennedy’s first major work, Funnyhouse of a Negro, premiered in 1964 and won her first Obie. Kennedy is also renowned for developing short works featuring the same character, Suzanne Alexander. The four one-acts that feature her were later re-released in a single volume as the Alexander Plays. In her golden years now, Kennedy lives with her son Adam in Virginia, where they produce work together.
Dael Orlandersmith is a poet, actress, and playwright who, in her own words, “write[s] about childhood and the sins of the father, the sins of the mother, and how people take on the very thing they don’t like about their parents and they become them.” She is known for not only writing her pieces but performing them entirely herself. Her premiere play Beauty’s Daughter, a one-woman performance piece, moves more like a poem following protagonist Diane from puberty to womanhood. She wrote the two-hander Yellowman about colorism in the black community in 2003, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won her the Susan Smith Blackburn prize. Orlandersmith is currently performing in another one-woman show at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York called Until the Flood, written in response to Michael Brown’s death and comprised from interviews with Ferguson and St. Louis residents.
Antoinette Nwandu was included on both the 2016 and 2017 Kilroy’s Lists for her plays Pass Over and Breach: a manifesto on race in america through the eyes of a black girl recovering from self-hate. Breach, about an unplanned pregnancy that forces a black woman to confront her self-loathing, receives its world premiere this month at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. Pass Over was produced by Steppenwolf Theatre in 2017, and combines Waiting for Godot with biblical mythology. The script has just been turned into a Spike Lee movie, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival last month—reviewers are calling it “funny, suspenseful, and bizarre.” Nwandu is a graduate of Harvard College and holds a Masters of Science in Cultural Politics from Edinburgh University, as well as an MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU Tisch. @anwandu
Francisca Da Silveria is a Boston native playwright whose work will next be seen in May with Fresh Ink Theatre’s world-premiere production of Heritage Hill Naturals. A double graduate of NYU Tisch, Da Silveria serves as the Literary Manager for Company One Theatre. She draws inspiration from Anton Chekov and Alan Bennett and is developing a new play about climate change with Flat Earth Theatre and the Museum of Science.