As we honor Black History Month in February, we remember that every day is an opportunity to uplift Black voices, Black art, and Black lives.
In his 2017 essay on Imagining a Better, More Inclusive Theatre, playwright, educator, and activist Idris Goodwin writes,
“Let this Black History Month not only be a celebration of voices and minds of the past but also the living among us, daily fighting in ways both big and small. And let this energy carry over into Women’s History Month, Asian Pacific Islanders Heritage Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month, LGBTQ Pride Month, and all designated moments of recognition. So that year-round we are in conscious practice of uncovering the dreams of those unexalted, animating them with our bodies and breath until they become reality.”
And with that in mind, here’s a list of 10 plays echoing Black History to read, revisit, and produce in February and all year long.
1. Sugar in Our Wounds
by Donja R. Love
Sugar in Our Wounds is the first play in The Love* Plays trilogy “that explores Queer love through Black History.” Called “fantastically moving” by the NY Times, the play follows James, a slave, in 1862 as he and a fellow slave navigate an unexpected romance while freedom becomes more and more possible with each passing day.
2. The Color Purple
Book by Marsha Norman, Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray
The Color Purple follows Celie, a young Black woman in rural Georgia, as she endures hardship and abuse, and ultimately triumphs as she finds fulfillment and independence. This musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the film by Steven Spielberg was nominated for eleven Tony Awards in 2006 and won the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical in 2016.
3. By the Way, Meet Vera Stark
by Lynn Nottage
Two-time Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage takes Hollywood head on in By the Way, Meet Vera Stark as she holds a magnifying glass to African American stereotypes in film. The play follows Vera Stark, a maid and an aspiring actress in the 1930s, jumping back and forth in time across 70 years in this stylized comedy.
4. A Raisin in the Sun
by Lorraine Hansberry
Following the death of Mr. Younger, the remaining members of the Younger family have vastly different opinions about how to spend the life insurance money to improve their circumstances. Family drama takes center stage against the backdrop of housing discrimination on the Southside of Chicago. Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play cemented its place in the Western canon with its Broadway debut in 1959 and continues to be celebrated with each revival.
Book and Lyrics by Christina Ham, Music and Lyrics by Gary Rue
This musical for young audiences follows the true story of Ruby Bridges who, as a 6 year old, was the subject of tremendous scrutiny and protesting for being the only Black child (and ultimately the only student) in her newly integrated classroom in New Orleans in 1960. Songs inspired by The Shirelles, Sam Cooke and Smokey Robinson illustrate Ruby’s courage in the face of adversity during the Civil Rights Movement. (See also by Christina Ham: Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963.)
by Amiri Baraka
Amiri Baraka’s searing take on American race relations through the lens of one fateful (and perhaps premeditated?) encounter on a subway train between a Black man and a white woman unfortunately rings as true today as it did when it first premiered in 1964. Winner of the 1964 Obie Award for Best American Play.
7. Two Trains Running
by August Wilson
August Wilson paints a rich cast of characters that frequent a small Pittsburgh restaurant, each with their own ambitions and struggle. Set during the Civil Rights Movement, the play is full of symbolic and literal truths that speak to the African American experience, which of course is Wilson’s calling card. Two Trains Running was a Pulitzer Finalist and also received multiple Tony nominations in 1992, including Best Play.
8. Until the Flood
by Dael Orlandersmith
Dael Orlandersmith crafted this solo show from interviews she conducted in St. Louis following the 2014 shooting of teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. The play is a series of vignettes where characters from all sides of the situation reflect on the incident and aftermath.
by Regina Taylor
Crowns refers to the all hats that adorn the stage and the characters of this musical – the hats that are used as tools and talking points to tell the story of history through modern times and how to accessorize for every occasion. Described by TheaterMania.com as “an artful amalgamation of oral history, fashion show, and musical theater,” the story’s narratives are accompanied by gospel music, dance, and rap.
10. A Tribe Called Tubman
by Idris Goodwin
Black History meets the present as Harriet Tubman comments on the current state of our nation in a made-for-digital-theater solo show for grades 5 and up. A 21st Century Tubman draws on her own experiences and wisdom to help the modern audience find freedom. A Tribe Called Tubman is currently streaming with TheaterWorksUSA and was written and directed by 2021 United States Artists Fellow Idris Goodwin.
To see what’s playing now in the BTD, head to our Shows page.
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