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Staging America

Christopher Bigsby
Methuen Drama
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Staging America

This book, subtitled "Twenty-First-Century Dramatists", looks in considerable depth at the work of eight of America’s finest contemporary playwrights.

The lucky octet who find their work under the microscope are Ayad Akhtar, David Auburn, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Quiara Allegría Hudes, Young Jean Lee, Bruce Norris, J T Rogers and Christopher Shinn. Between them, they are the writers of classic, award-winning works that have proved successful on the London stage as well as in their home country including Disgraced, Proof, Jesus Hopped the “A” Train, Clybourne Park and Oslo together with so much more.

Without wishing to start too much of a debate, it might be noted that relatively liberal samples of the work of each of the male writers have been seen in the UK, while Quiara Allegría Hudes and Young Jean Lee are probably lesser-known to British readers. However, the former did write the book for what might be regarded as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breakout musical, In the Heights.

As Christopher Bigsby identifies, his selection represents a widely varied bunch in terms of gender, race, background and outlook. In the same way, the work that they have produced runs the gamut from avant-garde performance to magic realism to semi-autobiography and overtly political work, with gender, race and class very much at the forefront of issues addressed, though sometimes indirectly.

The main attractions of Staging America lie in the methodology pursued by University of East Anglia’s Emeritus Professor of American Studies. Each writer benefits from 25 to 30 pages of close type dedicated to their dramatic efforts. We generally learn something about each playwright’s background, their spheres of interest and then every major work and quite a few of lesser significance is analysed in detail, after which the canon is succinctly summarised.

For many, Professor Bigsby’s greatest strength is his ability to describe and analyse plays. Most impressively, not only does he manage to remind readers of the pleasures and challenges that they enjoyed while watching so many of these dramas on stage, but he is equally good at conveying the essence and meaning of works that they have yet to see.

As a result, having read each chapter, even if some of the work might sound out of one’s normal viewing range, most will find themselves desperate to create an opportunity to see—or, in the current sad state of the world, read—a large number of the plays considered.

Without wishing to denigrate the Professor in academic circles, to which this book is largely being marketed, his writing is a breath of fresh air. It will prove clear even to lay readers and therefore is the kind of volume that one could recommend to any theatre lover, especially those with an interest in American drama and dramatists today.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher