For centuries, stories about white men have dominated theater, often perpetuating racist and sexist stereotypes with weak, underdeveloped characterizations of marginalized individuals in American society. Despite the domination of the white patriarchy in American theater however, Black creators, artists and intellectuals continue the age-old work of centering Black stories. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in the 1926 Krigwa Players playbill, “The plays of a real Negro theatre must be: One: About us … Two: By us … Three: For us.”
In the spirit of Du Bois’ efforts to uplift Black voices through theater, we must contribute to Black theater production. There are thousands of plays written by Black playwrights available online for purchase. Here are five plays written about and by Black people to fit into your reading list this summer:
“Dutchman” by Amiri Baraka (1963)
This unsettling play, written by Amiri Baraka in 1963, comments on cycles of Black violence under white supremacy. Set on a New York City subway car, Clay, a 20-year-old Black man, meets Lula, a 30-year-old white woman. Performing white manipulation, Lula humiliates Clay in front of several others. Her behavior throughout the play is discomforting, reminding the audience that she is the darling child of America. The story ends when the conductor walks past Lula, tipping his hat to show respect to the young white woman. From beginning to end, Baraka tells a familiar story full of symbols, allusions and reflections of anti-Blackness in America.
“For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf” by Ntozake Shange (1976)
This colorful 1976 piece embraces Black womanhood through song, dance and movement. Ntozake Shange’s iconic representation of sisterhood through seven women of color focuses on the experiences of Black women. These women recite poetic monologues, perform songs and move together with intense emotional energy. Even the title adds nuance to the work’s depictions of Black womanhood as written and expressed by Black women. This play is a powerful read, beaming with Black femininity and the stories of real Black women.
“Fences” by August Wilson (1985)
Set in the 1950s, August Wilson’s emotional 1985 play is a portrait of a Black family. The story begins when Cory, son of Troy and Rose Maxson, is recruited for a college football team. Troy faces emotional distress as a former Negro American League player who was disqualifed from the major leagues because of his race. Now as an old man, he witnesses his son’s acceptance into the very organization that rejected him. Tension unravels throughout the performance in recurring conflicts between the characters. Beginning with Troy mending a fence, the actions Wilson brings to life in this play become symbolic of the Maxsons’ internal conflicts. These conflicts reflect some of the experiences Black families in America have.
“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” by Anna Deavere Smith (1992)
Anna Deavere Smith brings rage, fear and pride onstage in this one-woman documentary style play. The series of monologues takes place during the Los Angeles Rodney King Riots that began April 29, 1992. Smith performs real monologues taken from 200 interviews that she videotaped during the first few days of the riots. From the title character and Crips gang member Twilight Bey to a Mexican artist based in LA and victim of police brutality, her performances bring a wide range of voices into the spotlight. Even after 27 years, “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” offers insight to the conflicts Black and other marginalized Americans continue to face today. The PBS film adaptation of this play can be viewed without purchase online.
“The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin” by Kirsten Childs (2000)
Playwright Kirsten Childs addresses race and identity conflicts with this musical comedy about a young Black Broadway actress. The show is a powerful expression of protagonist Viveca Stanton’s personal struggles with Black womanhood through the end of the 20th century. The story exposes normative American beauty standards that erase beautiful Black features with hair straighteners and a cultural obsession with white skin. Watch the show for a funny and inspiring performance about Black girlhood to womanhood in a culture dominated by whiteness.
The scripts of these critically acclaimed, award-winning performances are available for purchase online. Now more than ever, people need to listen to Black stories. These plays were written by Black artists who chose to write about Black people. The radical choices these artists made to represent Black voices in a white-dominated theater is significant as we imagine a future of authentic Black representation onstage. Read, watch and listen to Black stories this summer through the work of artists such as these five playwrights.
Contact Sera Smith at [email protected].