Not long before she began work on “A Raisin in the Sun,” which would make history as the first play by a Black woman ever produced on Broadway, Lorraine Hansberry declared both a consuming need and a fierce determination to express herself.
“All which I feel I must write has become obsessive,” she wrote. “So many truths seem to be rushing at me as the result of things felt and seen and lived through. Oh, what I think I must tell this world.”
Hansberry, who died of cancer at 34, would have turned 91 last month. If she were alive today … Well, in a sense she is.
An increasingly large number of today’s leading playwrights are Black women, and they, too, are drawing from “things felt and seen and lived through,” and telling the world their truths. Their steadily expanding cultural impact was further underscored on June 11, when Katori Hall’s “The Hot Wing King” was named winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, making Hall the third Black female playwright in the last five years to receive that most prestigious of awards.
Powerful, eloquent, and distinctive voices like Hall, Aleshea Harris, and Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu are making this an exciting time in the theater — and some of those voices are also making themselves heard on TV and in film.
Deploying a variety of writing styles but with a strong sense of political engagement as a common thread, Black women playwrights are bringing their talents, perspective, experiences, and dramatic imaginations to bear on racial inequality and a wide range of other subject matter: class, gender, sexuality, history, ambition, family, identity, economic struggle, and more. Play by play, they’re delivering penetrating critiques of America, past and present, that are gaining a substantial audience.
Take Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” a riff on “Waiting for Godot” that focuses on two young Black men haunted by fears they will be shot dead by police and was partly inspired by the killing of Trayvon Martin. A challenging play that once would not have been considered Broadway fare, “Pass Over” is the first full production slated to open on Broadway after its protracted pandemic intermission.
And when Broadway kicks back fully into gear this fall, three big-budget musicals scripted by Black women will loom large: “MJ,” a new bio-musical about Michael Jackson that features a book by two-time Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage; the returning “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” with a script by Dominique Morisseau; and the resuming “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” on which Hall is co-bookwriter.
Morisseau will also be represented on Broadway this season with a production of “Skeleton Crew,” her gripping drama about the impact of the Great Recession on blue-collar workers, set in a Detroit auto-parts stamping plant during 2008. Phylicia Rashad will star as a union leader, making her first appearance on Broadway in more than a decade.
Black women playwrights are not just widening but adjusting the lens on the Black experience. For example, next May will bring the premiere of “Common Ground Revisited” at Huntington Theatre Company, Kirsten Greenidge’s adaptation of J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer-winning book about the 1970s busing crisis in Boston. That one word, “Revisited,” added to Lukas’s original title, suggests the racial tumult of the period will be infused with the contemporary perspective of a Black playwright.
That lens has also been trained this year on the lives, careers, and cultural legacies of two legendary Black performers. February saw the release of “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” with a screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks, whose “Topdog/Underdog” two decades ago made her the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer for drama. “Billie Holiday’' was followed a month later by “Genius: Aretha,” an eight-episode series on the National Geographic channel about Aretha Franklin on which Parks served as showrunner, executive producer, and script writer.
“It’s a time to recognize Black female genius,” Parks told the website TV Line a few months ago. “Our genius helps the world really understand what genius is. Genius isn’t just some ivory tower thing that predominantly white men have. Or just men. Black female genius is inclusive and powerful in a way that you don’t even realize, and can bring all kinds of people together, like Aretha did. And turn the lead of life into gold — or solid gold in Aretha’s case.”
The “lead of life” yielded theatrical gold with Nottage’s “Sweat.” A Pulitzer winner in 2017, “Sweat” examines the fraying of friendships among workers, Black and white, in a Pennsylvania steel-tubing factory as uncertainty swirls over whether the plant will close. (Nottage had previously won the Pulitzer, in 2009, for “Ruined,” a harrowing drama about women trying to survive in the middle of a Congolese civil war.)
In 2019, Jackie Sibblies Drury earned the Pulitzer for “Fairview,” a deliberately discomfiting play that begins in an almost sitcom-ish vein, with a middle-class Black family gathering for a birthday party, then adds startling layers that turn a laser focus on the implications of white people watching Black people. Or, as Drury put it in an interview with NPR, “why surveillance affects people of color in a deeper way … especially if the watcher is a white person.” Her play, Drury said, “tries to point to whiteness not as the norm, or not as invisible, but as a particular vantage that can be damaging to other races.”
In announcing this year’s award to Hall’s “The Hot Wing King,” the Pulitzer jury described the play as a “funny, deeply felt consideration of Black masculinity and how it is perceived, filtered through the experiences of a loving gay couple and their extended family as they prepare for a culinary competition.” (Last year’s Pulitzer was won by Michael R. Jackson, who is Black, for the musical “A Strange Loop.”) Hall is also at work on season two of “P-Valley,” a critically acclaimed drama on the Starz cable channel about dancers employed at a Mississippi strip club, which she created and on which she serves as executive producer.
Boston theatergoers have decidedly benefited from the growing presence of talented Black women playwrights. In fact, the No. 1 pick on my Top 10 list last year was Nwandu’s “Pass Over,” presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company and the Front Porch Arts Collective, and the No. 1 pick on my Top 10 theater list in 2019 was Aleshea Harris’s “What to Send Up When It Goes Down,” presented by the American Repertory Theater. I described “What to Send Up” as “a kaleidoscopic series of monologues, dialogues, and scorchingly satirical sketches that delineate the forces in the surrounding white culture that have done so much to distort and sometimes destroy Black lives.”
Three other plays by Black women were on my list last year: “Sweat,” at Huntington Theatre Company; Morisseau’s “Pipeline,” about a divorced Black teacher agonizing over the prospect that her teenage son’s life will be permanently damaged by expulsion from his private school after he has a run-in with a white teacher, at Central Square Theater; and Tayna Barfield’s “Bright Half Life,” presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project, a drama about a long-term lesbian relationship. (Barfield was also a writer and producer on Hulu’s “Mrs. America,” a limited series about the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment.)
As theater resumes this summer and fall, the momentum seems likely to continue. Three of the seven plays scheduled for the upcoming Huntington Theatre Company season were written by Black women: “The Bluest Eye,” Lydia R. Diamond’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel; Greenidge’s “Our Daughters, Like Pillars”; and then “Common Ground Revisited.” That will make Greenidge the rare playwright to have two dramas staged in a single season by a major theater.
The Black women playwrights who have told so many important stories in the past few years have signaled they have many more to tell us. Nwandu told The New York Times a couple of years ago that she “definitely” plans on writing for not just theater but also film and television. “I’m open to, and deeply in love with, all three forms,” she said. “And despite the fact that I know that we can’t have it all, I am intending to do just that.”