Some Essential Women Playwrights of the 20th & 21st Centuries
In June, the Kilroys released their fantastic and important list of most recommended new plays by women.
In July, partly in preparation to teach a course entitled Women in Theatre and partly because many of them have been on my ‘to do’ list for a long time, I set myself the task of reading 31 not new plays in 31 days.
New plays are important. New plays are essential.
But we are also where we have come from.
We tell good stories over and over again because they speak to us. They help us to understand what it means to be human at a particular historical intersection or across time. They contextualize our journey.
I want us to make room for new plays to be produced, debated and discussed alongside classic ones; we can also begin to redefine what we mean by classic through including powerful and compelling dramatic writing that has gotten lost in the patriarchal shuffle for a variety of often ugly reasons over the decades and the centuries. By applying gender parity retroactively.
So. 31 plays in 31 days.
I didn’t quite make it; it took me til August 1st to finish #31, but I read 31 plays written by American women during the 20th and 21st centuries (and 2 plays written by that Shakespeare guy). I read some plays that I have never read before, and I reread some plays that I haven’t read in a long time. I read more or less chronologically, and I was fascinated to watch as the playwrights explored and articulated issues, handed the questions forward to the next generation like a social, political or human baton, and how different women explored these issues from different perspectives, through different styles, structures and theatrical vocabularies.
I was enthralled by and curious about the changing modes of narratology, both the embrace of the well-made structure and the deliberate strides into expressionism, documentary theatre and absurdism. I was struck both by what changed and by what persisted. I got excited both by the overtly feminist arguments and also by the plays that happen to be written by women.
I was amused by Lillian Hellman’s observation, “By the time I grew up the right for the emancipation of women, their rights under the law, in the office, in bed, was stale stuff.” We are still fighting like hell for that stale stuff now, ma’am.
I am sharing my 31 plays in 31 days (okay, 32 days) list as a kind of prequel to the Kilroys. As the beginning of a prequel. As a respectful reminder that women wrote powerfully, intelligently and movingly, against tremendous odds, sometimes in near silence, sometimes with tremendous and resounding acclaim in the 20th Century.
Ellen McLaughlin has written, “I believe that most women feel, deep down, that they are not part of the real history of mankind, the important stuff, the heroic stuff, the stuff that matters . . . so one ends up identifying with men. I know I did.”
Here’s one small cross-section of the important, heroic stuff:
1.) A MAN’s WORLD by Rachel Crothers
2.) HE AND SHE by Rachel Crothers
3.) RACHEL by Angelina Weld Grimke
4.) SUSAN AND GOD by Rachel Crothers
5.) MISS LULU BETT by Zona Gale
6.) MACHINAL by Sophie Treadwell
7.) FOR SAXOPHONE by Sophie Treadwell
8.) FOOL’s ERRAND by Eulalie Spence
9.) PLUMES by Georgia Douglas Johnson
10.) A SUNDAY MORNING IN THE SOUTH by Georgia Douglas Johnson
11.) SAFE by Georgia Douglas Johnson
12.) THE WOMEN by Clare Boothe
13.) The LITTLE FOXES by Lillian Hellman
14.) IN THE SUMMER HOUSE by Jane Bowles
15.) TROUBLE IN MIND by Alice Childress
16.) THE SIGN IN SIDNEY BRUSTEIN’s WINDOW by Lorraine Hansberry
17.) FUNNYHOUSE OF A NEGRO by Adrienne Kennedy
18.) FOR COLORED GIRLS … Ntozake Shange
19.) FEFU AND HER FRIENDS by Maria Irene Fornes
20.) STILL LIFE by Emily Mann
21.) THE HEIDI CHRONICLES by Wendy Wasserstein
22.) HOUSE ARREST by Anna Deveare Smith
23.) THE MINEOLA TWINS by Paula Vogel
24.) JAR THE FLOOR by Cheryl West
25.) INTIMATE APPAREL by Lynn Nottage
26.) IPHIGENIA AND OTHER DAUGHTERS by Ellen McLaughlin
27.) VENUS by Suzan-Lori Parks
28.) TRESTLE AT POPE LICK CREEK by Naomi Wallace
29.) A SONG FOR CORETTA by Pearl Cleage
30.) YELLOWMAN by Dael Orlandersmith
31.) SELF DEFENSE by Carson Kreitzer
I’m going to keep reading, although probably at a slower pace, and I will fold in the Kilroys’ list.
What plays would you add to Kilroys’ prequel?