Playwright's Choice.The best-selling novelist who made her early reputation as a dramatist in black theater shares her favorite plays in print
Many years ago, I attended the Atlanta premiere of Ntozake Shange's classic play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. I had been reading about the play--reviews, commentaries, passionate praise and angry charges of something called "male bashing." I didn't quite know what to expect, and when I looked around the theater at the almost all white audience, I could tell they didn't know either.
We didn't have to wait long to find out. From the mysterious opening lines, "dark phases of womanhood/of never havin' been a girl/half-notes scattered/without rhythm/no tune" to the heartbreaking final monologue and the hushed amazement when the actress "found god in myself/&i loved her/i loved her fiercely" it was what Ntozake calls "a black girls song" She had a story to tell and the beauty and truth of her writing and the courage and passion of the actresses speaking her words transported me to a place I'd never been before. Ten minutes into the piece, I started weeping in surprise and gratitude and I wept throughout the play. It was like hearing my own voice in seven different bodies and even though I'm sure the people around me thought I had lost my mind, seeing that play changed my life.
That's the power of good theater. It brings us together in one space to share a ritual as ancient as storytelling around the campfire and rewards us, if we surrender to its spell, with a perfect moment where audience, actors and playwright, however briefly, are dreaming the same dream. Unlike any other kind of writing, plays are written to be experienced in a group. Reading a novel or a poem or a collection of essays requires only that you bring home the book, curl up in your favorite chair and begin. It is a solitary process which relies solely on the writer's skill and the reader's imagination to transport us to the story's location and give physical form to the characters.
But to the fiction writer's arsenal of character and vocabulary, plot and point of view, playwrights have the added blessing (or challenge!) of actors, directors, producers, designers and that magical element that is a live audience. Reading a play on the printed page is quite a different experience than going to the theater and, as a playwright, I could probably make a convincing argument that you should hold out until one comes to a theater near you, but I know that's unrealistic. Many of our communities have no live theater at all and, of the ones which do, an even smaller number regularly present work by African American African American Multiculture A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. See Race. playwrights. Reading plays may be the only way many of us can encounter our playwrights at all and, even if it's not the same experience, there are rewards to be gained from seeking out and reading these works.
For first time play readers, I offer the following suggestions for getting the most out of the experience:
1. Cheat a little. Even if you can't go to the theater, you can get that "live theater" feeling by reading a play aloud with friends. Since stage language is written to be spoken, hearing the play is part of the pleasure. Book clubs are great places to read plays.
2. Start with a play you can see live or on video first. "A Raisin in the Sun A Raisin in the Sun is a play by Lorraine Hansberry that debuted on Broadway in 1959. The story is based upon Hansberry's own experiences growing up in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood. " by Lorraine Hansberry Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930 - January 12, 1965) was an American playwright and litigant in the United States Supreme Court case, Hansberry v. Lee.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Hansberry was the youngest of four children of Carl Augustus Hansberry (a prominent and "The Piano Lesson" by August Wilson August Wilson (April 27, 1945—October 2, 2005) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright.
Wilson's singular achievement and literary legacy is a cycle of ten plays—two of which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—dubbed "The Pittsburgh Cycle". are widely available at video rental outlets. Seeing the play before you read it will help you to visualize the setting and the characters more easily.
3. One-person shows are great for reading. Usually a collection of monologues in which the actor/author portrays a series of characters, they offer passionate, autobiographical stories and lots of familiar moments when all you can do is shake your head and mutter, "I know that's right."
4. If you're reading aloud, designate a person to read stage directions right along with the dialogue. Many publishers include a preface that gives the plays artistic and production history. Read that, too, and you'll be amazed at how many familiar names did lots of theater before moving into film and television.
5. Finally, read the play in one sitting. Part of the structure of a play reflects the playwright's assumption that people are going to experience the whole work at the same time. By reading it through from start to finish, you honor the demands of the form and get closer to the dramatic arc of the Playwright's ideas.
Now all you have to do is pick a play. Here are ten to get you started.
1. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange Ntozake Shange (pronounced En-toe-ZAHK-kay SHONG-gay) (born October 18 1948) is an African American playwright, performance artist, and writer who is best-known for her Obie Award winning play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. . This groundbreaking work holds up beautifully after twenty-five years. Once you've read it, you'll never forget it.
(For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange; Collier Books/Macmillan Publishing Company, 1977, $5.95, ISBN ISBN
International Standard Book Number
ISBN International Standard Book Number
ISBN n abbr (= International Standard Book Number) → ISBN m 0-020-24891-1).
2. A Raisin In the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry's hit drama premiered in 1959 and was the first play by a black female playwright produced on Broadway. It's vivid and realistic portrait of the Younger family is as moving as ever.
(A Raisin In the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry in Contemporary Black Drama, edited by Clinton F. Oliver and Stephanie Sills; Charles Scribner Charles Scribner is the name of several members of a New York publishing family associated with the company bearing their name. Charles Scribner
Charles Scribner and Sons, 1971, ISBN 6-844-1432-5).
3. A Soldier's Story by Charles Fuller
Charles Fuller (Born, best known for A Soldier's Play, winner of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. won the Pulitzer Prize for drama
From 1918 to 2006, the Drama Prize was unlike the majority of the other Pulitzer Prizes: during these years, the eligibility period for the drama prize ran from March 2 to March 1, to reflect the Broadway in 1982. It opened at The Negro Ensemble Company The Negro Ensemble Company is a New York City-based theater company. Established in 1967 by playwright Douglas Turner Ward, producer/actor Robert Hooks, and theater manager Gerald Krone, the company focuses on themes in "black life". the year before with a cast that included Denzel Washington Denzel Hayes Washington, Jr. (born December 28, 1954) is a two-time Academy Award and Golden Globe Award-winning American actor and director. He has garnered much critical acclaim for his portrayals of several real-life figures, such as Steve Biko, Malcolm X, Rubin "Hurricane" , Samuel L. Jackson “Samuel Jackson” redirects here. For the senator from Indiana, see Samuel D. Jackson.
Samuel Leroy Jackson (born December 21, 1948) is an American Academy Award-nominated and BAFTA-winning actor. and Adolph Caesar. With an ending that will surprise you, the play is a riveting portrait of black men in the armed services The Constitution authorizes Congress to raise, support, and regulate armed services for the national defense. The President of the United States is commander in chief of all the branches of the services and has ultimate control over most military matters. .
(A Soldier's Story by Charles Fuller, in An Anthology of Black American Drama In America, edited by Darwin T. Turner; Howard University Press Howard University Press is a publisher that is part of Howard University. External link
4. Pretty Fire by Charlayne Woodard was published in 1995 after successful productions in Los Angeles Los Angeles (lôs ăn`jələs, lŏs, ăn`jəlēz'), city (1990 pop. 3,485,398), seat of Los Angeles co., S Calif.; inc. 1850. and New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of . On an almost bare stage, Woodward weaves her stories in language that is as familiar and as sweet as the scent of Dixie Peach.
(Pretty Fire by Charlayne Woodward; PLUME, 1995, published by The Penguin Group, $8.95, ISBN 0-452-27385-4).
5. Flyin' West by Pearl Cleage Pearl Cleage (born 7 December, 1948) is an [African-American]] poet, essayist, and journalist living in Atlanta, Georgia. An activist on issues including AIDS, women's rights, and black life, her first novel, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day . My own 1994 play imagines the lives of four black women homesteaders in Kansas after the Civil War as they make new lives for themselves and their families. Inspired by seeing one too many movies where all the pioneers looked like John Wayne instead of my grandmomma.
(Flyin' West and Other Plays by Pearl Cleage; Theater Communications Group, Inc., 1999, $15.95, ISBN 1-55936-168-9).
6. Beauty's Daughter, Monster, The Gimmick: Three Plays by Dael Orlandersmith Dael Orlandersmith is an actress, poet and playwright that is best known for her Obie Award winning Beauty's Daughter and the 2002 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Drama, Yellowman. is a powerful new one-woman show divided into three extended monologues. The often painful stories are told without flinching and leave you, finally, with a true appreciation of the strength of the human spirit.
(Beauty's Daughter, Monster, The Gimmick: Three Plays by Dael Orlandersmith; Vintage Books, 2000, $12.00, ISBN 0-375-70871-5).
7. Fires In The Mirror Fires in the Mirror is a play by Anna Deavere Smith. Smith interviewed and played various individuals connected to the 1991 Crown Heights Riot between African-Americans and Lubavitch Jews. by Anna Deavere Smith For other persons of the same name, see Anna Smith.
Anna Deavere Smith (born September 18, 1950, in Baltimore, Maryland) is an African American actress, playwright, and professor in the Department of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. is another one-woman show with Smith inhabiting a wide range of characters as part of her continuing examination of race and class in America. Based on interviews with residents of Crown Heights, Brooklyn Crown Heights is a neighborhood in the central portion of the New York City borough of Brooklyn. Until 1916, the area was known as Crow Hill. The name was changed when Crown Street was cut through. , after the 1991 civil unrest in the area, the play is unique in its approach and forgiving in its world view.
(Fires In The Mirror, 1993 by Anna Deavere Smith, Doubleday, $10.00, ISBN 0-385-47014-4).
8. A Black Woman Speaks by Beah Richards Beah Richards (July 12, 1920 – September 14, 2000) was an American actress with a long career on stage, screen and television. She was also a poet, playwright and author. . This one may be hard to find, but it's well worth the effort. First performed by Richards herself in 1950 for a white woman's peace organization in Chicago, its stinging and lucid criticism of the minefields that divide white and black women is as revolutionary today as it was then. A Black Woman speaks in 9 Plays by Black Women, edited by Margaret B. Wilkerson; Mentor, Penguin Group, 1989, $5.99, ISBN 0-451-62820-9.
9. Trouble In Mind, a "comedy-drama in two acts" by Alice Childress, appeared in 1955 and examined the problems of a group of black actors trying not to get caught up in other peoples views of who and what they are. Accurate and funny, it is as timely as a film by Spike Lee.
(Trouble In Mind by Alice Childress and A Soldier's Story by Charles Fuller, both in An Anthology of Black American Drama In America, edited by Darwin T. Turner; Howard University Press, 1994, $34.95, ISBN 0-88258-062-0).
10. Fences may be August Wilson's best known play. I'll never forget seeing James Earl Jones in the Broadway production. He made me understand that good actors are really magicians. Failing a repeat performance by Brother Jones, this play reads beautifully and is the perfect introduction to Wilson's work.
(Fences by August Wilson; New American Library, 1987, ISBN 0-452-26401-4).
That's more than enough to get you started! Remember, this isn't tenth grade English class. Enjoy yourself and, as we say in the theater for good luck, "break a leg!"
Pearl Cleage is the Atlanta-based author of more than a dozen plays, including Flyin' West and Blues for an Alabama Sky.