With the recent release of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton on Disney+, now is the time to elevate the voices of BIPOC in the world of American theatre. Despite the musical’s success, these voices are still tragically underrepresented both on stage and behind the scenes.
Black authors and artists are denied opportunities to see their work performed—to have their stories told—in favor of more well-known works written by white authors. As a result, actors of color have difficulty landing major roles. This is all to say nothing of the few unfair and demeaning characters of color that do exist in the popular American theatrical canon.
This list of plays, all masterworks by Black authors from the last half a century, is just the beginning of a complete and robust education in American theatre. A joy to read on their own, they also tell powerful stories of marginalized lives—stories that, unfortunately, are still seen too little today.
1. A Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry
This is a classic not only among Black playwrights, but in American theatre. Hansberry’s work tells the tragic story of a Black family struggling with the death of its patriarch. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in learning the recent history of Black theatre.
2. Blues for Mister Charlie (1964) by James Baldwin
Though Baldwin is better known for his prose, Blues for Mister Charlie is a breathtaking piece of theatre. Based on the brutal killing of Emmet Till in 1955, Baldwin’s play takes aim at white individuals, and the American culture that allows racism and hatred to fester where the killing an innocent Black man is seen as a minor offense. Difficult as it may be to admit, the play is as relevant to our own time as it was to Baldwin’s.
3. Seven Guitars (1995) by August Wilson
Any of the plays in August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle”—a series of ten plays about Black characters, each taking place in a different decade of the 20th century—is worthy of a spot on this list. The play follows the story of a young musician named Floyd in the 1940’s.
It tackles the complexities and difficulties of being a Black man in America, ones that are all too familiar in 2020. I had the privilege of seeing a production of Seven Guitars performed by my college’s Drama Department in 2017. I have not been more moved by a single piece of theatre since watching it.
4. An Octoroon (2014) by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Though written in 2014, Jacobs-Jenkins’ play exists in conversation with a much earlier play, Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon written in 1859. But where Boucicault’s work is driven by racist caricatures and absurd melodrama, Jacobs-Jenkins takes a far more biting, modern and satirical approach to the same story.
Filled with tongue-in-cheek parodies of the same caricatures Boucicault uses earnestly, ingenious race-bending actors and characters, and a fourth-wall breaking narrator who transcends the barrier between playwright and audience, An Octoroon tells an age-old story for a contemporary audience.
5. Slave Play (2018) by Jeremy O. Harris
The Slave Play is an absurd erotic work about interracial romance, power and trauma. In this play, three couples are subjected to “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy,” in which the members of the couples are assigned roles of master and enslaved laborer.
It is a chilling, irreverent and powerful piece of theatre in which traditional roles and expectations are challenged, and major questions about race and power in America are grappled with.