American Dramatists in the 21st Century
In order to avoid confusion, it is worth noting that the title of this book is potentially misleading. Rather than an overview of American playwrights in the first couple of decades of the century, Christopher Bigsby has written a combined theatrical biography celebrating the efforts of seven contemporary American theatre makers, collectively intended to represent a wide range of current trends.
In 25 to 30 packed pages, each person receives an impressively thorough overview, comprising some brief biographical notes and deep analysis of all of their stage work, sometimes even from student days onwards.
Prof. Bigsby is an expert summariser, able to give readers a strong impression of a play, whether that be a reminder of something that they have seen or an introduction to an unknown piece. He also expertly draws together themes, using readily accessible language rather than that so often purveyed by academics strutting their stuff.
As the introduction notes, theatre both in America and more widely has changed immeasurably in the last few decades. Had this been a book about any couple of decades in the majority of the 20th century, almost every writer would have been white and male.
Here, five are female, four from BAME backgrounds, while almost all have immigrant roots without going back too many generations. This diversity is often apparent in their work as well, which may have been a factor in their selection.
They are presented in alphabetical order starting with David Adjmi (identified as The Outsider), a gay writer with Syrian-Jewish roots. He is a master of angst, working out personal insecurities on stage, like one or two other playwrights in this volume seemingly a potential successor to Edward Albee.
Julia Cho, an Asian American writer, who is identified as the specialist on “Love, Loss and Memory”, is little known on this side of the Atlantic but fully deserves her place in this work. Her plays often address the Korean-American experience, demonstrating both that first- and second-generation immigrants struggle to assimilate and overcome language barriers but also frequently face exactly the same problems as the natives who feel tempted to look down on them.
Jackie Sibblies Drury hit the headlines after winning the Pulitzer Prize with Fairview, a devastating and unconventional play that proved so successful at the Young Vic. Identified as “Staging race”, she pulls no punches when looking at the difficulties faced by African-Americans in the past and also today in lively, challenging but compelling plays that often prove divisive and controversial.
Will Eno, attached to a subheading of “a Touch of Beckett”, seems obsessed by death (as does Christopher Bigsby to be fair) and favours intimate, small-scale works, often monologues, that work as much on a visceral level as an intellectual one.
Martyna Majok will be familiar to many British viewers from her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Cost of Living. Even in this book of outsiders, this writer’s outlook is unique, since the Polish immigrant favours realism to a far greater extent than many of her peers and draws much of her writing from personal experience of working-class life where every penny counts and disappointment is always lying in wait.
Dominique Morisseau will also be a name that UK theatregoers recognise. This “Poet of Detroit” is recognised and portrayed as a female successor to August Wilson, with a Detroit trilogy that emulates, in themes if not scope, his legendary Philadelphia cycle. Like Wilson, she portrays the experience of being black in a white society, sometimes addressing political issues directly but more often via the medium of a rich array of finely drawn characters.
Anna Ziegler is destined to come last in any alphabetical contest but certainly not when it comes to playwriting. She is best known in the UK for Photograph 51, the biographical play about scientist Rosalind Franklin, portrayed on stage in London by Nicole Kidman. Ziegler likes time shifts, is strong on Jewish themes and the moral dilemmas so often forced on women, even in today’s enlightened society.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher