With a mix of fury and outrageous humor, their work conveys concerns that have long challenged this nation, including persistent inequities and the legacy of slavery. Yet they are specifically informed by both the political whiplash of the Obama to Trump transition and the deaths of African-American men and women in encounters with the police.
Many of the plays also confront the white gaze prevalent in the theater world. Two works this season even invited white patrons to relocate, in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fairview,” by leaving their seats and being observed on the stage, and in “What to Send Up When It Goes Down” by leaving the auditorium during the final minutes of a work about black grief.
We spoke with four playwrights, each under 40 and each produced Off Broadway this season, about their plays and the context in which their work has been presented.
Jackie Sibblies Drury, 37, is the author of “Fairview,” a comedy-turned-confrontation that challenges the white gaze through which black art is often filtered. Jeremy O. Harris, 29, wrote “Slave Play,” examining fraught race relations by following interracial couples through “antebellum sexual performance therapy.” Antoinette Nwandu, 39, is the author of “Pass Over,” about two black men trapped on a stretch of pavement because they are worried about running afoul of the police. And Jordan E. Cooper, 24, wrote “Ain’t No Mo’, ” about a collective exodus of African-Americans from the United States after the promise of the Obama era is followed by the Trump administration.
These are edited excerpts from separate telephone conversations with those writers.
Do you see yourselves as connected, or is the idea of grouping you together problematic?
ANTOINETTE NWANDU I definitely think there’s something emerging. There’s this cohort of black artists, in film, in music, in theater, in visual art — people who are using this language to cope, to strategize, to hold up a mirror, to think about a future.
JORDAN E. COOPER Because Trump is in office, a lot of us are swimming in the same river and more likely to look over our shoulder and see our neighbor.
JACKIE SIBBLIES DRURY It’s exciting that there’s a lot of work that’s getting recognized right now. And I know that we’re all black, obviously. But I feel like the projects are as different as Edward Albee is from Harold Pinter.
JEREMY O. HARRIS Part of my discomfort with this sort of notion is the idea that the thoughts that we are presenting to the world are so utterly and dangerously new that they deserve comment. They only feel new if you have ignored black Twitter for like the last decade, you know what I mean?
What playwrights have inspired or informed your work?
NWANDU I did not grow up going to the theater — I was much more of a television person as a kid. But Beckett obviously was the artist who made me understand that theater was something that I wanted to do and invited me in, and very quickly from there it was Caryl Churchill, Adrienne Kennedy, even some Sam Shepard and (Martin) McDonagh and Pinter. For a long time, it was angry white men who knew that the world that they had inherited was absurd. They were my first brethren and my first cohorts.
DRURY My theater diet in college was mostly canonical in a lot of ways — I was pretty inspired by Pinter and Albee and Beckett and Brecht, and they’re all such different writers. But I also got exposed to people like Suzan-Lori Parks and Young Jean Lee and (María Irene) Fornés as I got to read more, so I guess as I got to see more theater I got to have my taste expand.
HARRIS I grew up reading plays, and I read a lot of them voraciously — I read all the classics. I also grew up watching Tyler Perry plays — those were the black plays that would come to Greensboro, N.C., which is where I grew up, and I grew up having this fractious relationship to Tyler Perry’s dramaturgy, feeling above it for some reason. And then I had this amazing realization about six years ago that actually Tyler Perry is the country’s most successful experimental playwright.
COOPER One of my biggest influences in writing in general is Stephen Sondheim, because he knows how to dance with words like none other. I own everything he’s ever written and every note he’s ever written about a production and I study that.
“What jolted me? I would say the Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley portraits. What a time to be alive! And then, for music, the album ‘Whack World’ by Tierra Whack — it’s so inventive, and so completely about itself, and that formal rigidity!”
— Antoinette Nwandu
How did contemporary events affect the creation of these plays?
HARRIS The Black Lives Matter movement definitely changed the making of black plays. We are the first generation who have had to watch our deaths on loop. Seeing a singular black body dying on loop changed the way black people thought about themselves in this country, changed the way they thought about this country, in a way that I don’t think it changed the way white people thought about themselves in this country or the way that white people thought about the country.
NWANDU Art is not created in a vacuum — we’re responding to, and being molded by, the time and the place in which we create. So much of my obsessions are directly related to the fact that I’m living in the United States in the 21st century having experienced the last two decades of political life and discourse. That’s the soil in which all of this art is being grown.
DRURY I think it makes audiences more open to admitting that racism is still in existence. It makes it easier to think about those things because you don’t have to get over this insurmountable first step of having people admit that they exist.
COOPER Theaters are starting to realize the urgency more. With Trump in office, the devil is running around ass-naked in the streets. If Hillary Clinton or anybody else was in the White House, Satan would have been hiding, but now he’s on public display.
“There is an undeniable link between the play I wrote and Rihanna’s ‘Anti’ album. It immediately grabbed me, because I am drawn to tragedy and melodrama, and pop music is always about utter joy, melodrama or tragedy.”
— Jeremy O. Harris
How important is it for you to provoke audiences?
DRURY Provocation in and of itself, as an endpoint, seems like an immature and male impulse. Just jabbing someone doesn’t feel particularly productive. But trying to surprise or engage or affect people to think or reconsider or engage intellectually or emotionally in a way that they might not otherwise — that seems like a great reason to have people come to see a play.
HARRIS If anything, I want to provoke them in the way that if you go to a Travis Scott concert you’re provoked. I want to compel people to do something, to feel something. You came to the theater to have something happen, didn’t you? I love the band Death, and there’s something inside of my plays that’s more akin to being in a punk concert or a really lit hip-hop concert.
NWANDU I don’t want to fall into the trap of, ‘Oh, I’m shocking you and that’s all, because shock value in and of itself can become quite cheap. It’s less about jolting people, and more about a collective acknowledgment of unspoken truths.
Many of these plays are quite funny. How do you see the role of humor, and does it matter if not everyone gets the joke?
COOPER I can’t cry without laughing, and I can’t laugh without crying. I honestly believe if this world didn’t have pain, we would have nothing to laugh about.
HARRIS For me a good joke isn’t a good joke if everyone is laughing. Part of the joke is that someone in the room is not going to get it. Someone has to be naïve to the joke for the joke to land with the power it should.
NWANDU My grandmother used to tell me “If you’re still laughing, that means you’re not dead,” and that’s kind of a theme of my writing. It’s going to get really bleak, but we’re still alive, which means hope is not lost.
“The Hilma af Klint show at the Guggenheim was incredible. I really want to watch a biopic about that woman — I mean I want a big-budget movie that also recreates the temple. Her life was so deeply bizarre, and the paintings were incredible.”
— Jackie Sibblies Drury
What’s it like to be making plays knowing that the theatergoing audience is primarily white?
DRURY That’s the way that it’s always been, since I even understood that plays were being performed in New York City. But also: I have always been in the audience of every play that I’ve seen, and I’m not a white person. So I also know that even if the plays haven’t acknowledged my presence, I know that I’m there and I know that people like me are there too.
COOPER It can be frustrating. There was one night last week where it was a 90 percent white audience, and most of them were older people, and the entire play was quiet. It’s a loud-ass play, and the audience was silent.
NWANDU I’m a bit of a pragmatist — I’m going to have a conversation with the people who show up. There were white people who responded to “Pass Over” and said this is great, and white people who were very offended, and there were black people who said this is great, and black people who were offended. At the end of the day, I’m writing for the people who want to go on the journey I’m making, and I’m not writing with one race in mind.
HARRIS So many of the power brokers of the theater have been running these theaters for 30 years, so why would they want to invest the time, energy and money into getting audiences that are actually under 35? But I’m thinking about me at 15 having to scour my local library, the internet and every other place to find the plays by black writers that felt like me. Part of my goal is to make it more accessible for the young black theater nerd to find work that looks like them.
COOPER The Public sends an email to audience members saying “What did you think of the show?” and some white audience members write back and they’re like “I just feel like I didn’t have a way in.” And the thing is, how many times do we have to sit through shows that we don’t necessarily have a way in on? We don’t see anybody who looks like us, and we don’t recognize these stories, and we don’t necessarily always feel welcome, but we still do the work to understand it. And I feel like some of the white audience members and even some critics don’t always do the work.
There’s been a lot of discussion about the whiteness of critics, at this newspaper and elsewhere. How do you think race affects a critic’s ability to assess your work?
COOPER I do think there is a certain understanding that comes in some work — that you have to have lived in that experience to understand that work. If you sent all black critics to go review the first production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” they would say, “It was great; We had a good time,” but they’re not going to be able to go as in-depth and get all the traditions and all the winks.
HARRIS There is so much frustration from black artists about the way in which our work is being seen, because it’s not equitable. Out of all the shows on Broadway right now that are being talked about, there’s only one black critic who has ever written about most of them. The fact that there’s only been one major black critic of “To Kill a Mockingbird” on Broadway, and that it’s also a negative review, is something that I think should key people into the fact that perhaps a relationship to whiteness affects a white critic’s relationship to not only black work but to white work as well.
NWANDU I would just like to have more voices. Let’s talk specifically about The Times. I don’t understand why every art form is not reviewed in the way books are reviewed, where you have a lot of different voices — different races, different ages, different backgrounds, a lot of people who have written books — reviewing books. The model where there are two or three dominant voices seeing everything and reviewing everything for a publication doesn’t reflect the world.
DRURY You see the work from a particular vantage point. And you imagine yourself as the audience, which in some ways is true and in some ways is limited. It just is a shame that there aren’t more vantage points that are commonly available for people to see themselves in the audience through reviews.
How do you think about how to portray whiteness in your work?
HARRIS I feel like black people are the best equipped to write about white people because we’ve had an entire life of white studies.
NWANDU I definitely identify with, and agree with, the notion that black people know about whiteness better than white people, and that, as someone who has had to both survive it and elicit help from it and is oftentimes surrounded by it, I think I have an understanding of the characteristics of whiteness. Then it’s just a matter of filtering those observations through my own aesthetic and through my own voice.
“Beyoncé’s documentary about Coachella lived with me, because I just love creating those spaces where you can just be unapologetically black and no one even has to know all the references to experience it.”
— Jordan E. Cooper
Do you find yourself drawn to television or film, or do you expect to continue writing plays?
NWANDU Definitely writing for all three forms — theater, film and television. I’m open to, and deeply in love with, all three forms, and despite the fact that I know that we can’t have it all, I am intending to do just that.
DRURY I have been talking and thinking more about TV and film just because it seems like it’s exciting to think about narratives that don’t necessarily include what you called the mostly white, Off Broadway audience — thinking about what narrative could be if it’s not being presented to that group automatically. But I also am still obsessed with that group and part of that group. So I want to do everything, I guess.
HARRIS Well, the ultimate goal is to create some sort of landscape where I can fluidly do theater, film and television, nationally and internationally, right? The goal is always to make a movie that goes to Cannes and also be programmed at the Schaubühne. That’s the ultimate dream. But that’s a lofty one. I don’t plan on leaving theater any time soon.
COOPER I’m working on a TV project right now which is really fun. I really wanted to find a way to bring what I love about theater into television. I’ve been a child of great sitcoms like “The Golden Girls” and “Martin” and “I Love Lucy” and there’s just something super interesting about taking the beautiful doll houses that we know to be multicam sitcoms and kind of burning it down.
Where these plays have been, and where these writers are going:
“Fairview,” by Ms. Drury, was staged at Soho Rep in New York and at Berkeley Rep in California. The original production is to be remounted in June at Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn, and new productions will be staged at Woolly Mammoth in Washington and the Young Vic in London this fall. Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 program presented Ms. Drury’s “Marys Seacole” this season.
“Slave Play,” by Mr. Harris, was staged at New York Theater Workshop and his “‘Daddy’” was jointly presented Off Broadway by the New Group and Vineyard Theater. Mr. Harris’s next play, “A Boy’s Company Presents: ‘Tell Me If I’m Hurting You’,” will be staged next spring by Playwrights Horizons in New York.
“Pass Over,” by Ms. Nwandu, was staged by Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago, and then in New York by LCT3. A Contemporary Theater in Seattle, Echo Theater Company in Los Angeles, Curious Theater Company in Denver, Studio Theater in Washington, and SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston have productions planned as well. It was filmed by Spike Lee and is streamable on Amazon. Ms. Nwandu’s next play, “Tuvalu or, The Saddest Song,” is to be presented next season by the Vineyard.
“Ain’t No Mo’,” by Mr. Cooper, is running through May 5 at the Public Theater in New York.