Welcome to our Theatrical Reading List, a three-act list of plays by American playwrights curated by AWM staff member Matthew Masino. Matt graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a BFA in Theatre Directing and he really misses live theatre right now. So sit back, enjoy the show and add these plays to your reading list. After intermission we pick it up at Act II: Contemporary Plays. If you missed it, check out Act I: The Classics here.
By Matthew Masino
As social distancing and stay-at-home orders continue, readers everywhere are discovering new worlds sitting right on their bookshelves. Novels, comics, short stories, and plays all have the ability to take us on adventures to worlds unknown. Last week, we took a look at six Classics of the American Theatre including The Crucible by Arthur Miller and A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. If you haven’t taken a look at that list yet, I suggest you do as today we’ll be moving forward in time to look at seven contemporary works for your reading list. Also included is a list of honorable mentions to further spark your interest. Join the conversation by adding your favorite contemporary works in the comments!
Come back next week for the final installment of the Theatrical Reading List. We’ll go behind the scenes to look at books about the different aspects of theatre including acting, directing, design, and, of course, writing. You’ll be able to find that here, on the American Writers Museum’s blog.
How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel
Premiering Off-Boadway in 1997, How I Learned to Drive tells the story of Li’l Bit and her relationship with her aunt’s husband starting in pre-adolescence through her adult life. Told non-chronologically, the play addresses issues of misogyny, victim blaming, and pedophilia. Paula Vogel was inspired to write the play after reading Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov. In an interview with Playbill, Vogel said “Critics have said that this is a play about pedophilia, but I think the relationship between these two characters is more complex than that… It was fascinating to me because it was so even-handed and so neutral. I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen if a woman wrote the story from Lolita’s point of view.” Vogel won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the work. How I Learned to Drive was set to premiere on Broadway on April 22, 2020, but has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, with hopes that it will return in the following season.
Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury
The 2019 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Drama, Fairview is an examination of family, drama, and the insidiousness of white supremacy. As the Frasier family prepares for Grandma’s birthday, everything seems doomed to go wrong. Beverly needs this party to go perfectly but with her sister refusing to help, her husband refusing to listen, and her daughter being, well, a teenager, Beverly has her work cut out for her. But then things start to get weird. And then they get weirder. To say anything else would ruin the twist. “[I was] really interested in thinking about surveillance and why surveillance affects people of color in a deeper way. And this idea of being watched by someone as a person of color — there is automatically some sort of sense of suspicion, especially if the watcher is a white person” playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury said in an interview with NPR. “And so we started from a place of trying to create what in the theater felt like a normal black family, and then introducing the idea of someone watching that family — and that watching [changes] their behavior and the course of their lives.”
Caroline, or Change with Book and Lyrics by Tony Kushner and Music by Jeanine Tesori
Blending blues, Motown, Jewish klezmer, and gospel, Caroline, or Change tells the story of Caroline Thibodeaux, a 39-year-old African-American maid who works for the Gellman family in Lake Charles, Louisiana. As the nation reels from the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, and the start of the Civil Rights Movement, a friendship develops between Caroline and the Gellman’s youngest son, Noah. A Broadway revival starring Sharon D. Clarke as Caroline was set to premiere on Broadway on April 7, 2020 but has been postponed due to the coronavirus epidemic. Take a listen to the Original Broadway Cast Recording on Spotify or Apple Music. This sung-through musical is a fantastic read (or listen) for those learning how to deal with change as it keeps coming.
Almost, Maine by John Cariani
Welcome to Almost, Maine: a place that’s so far north, it’s almost not in the United States. It’s almost in Canada. A place that’s not organized enough for a town and too populated for the wilderness. John Cariani’s 2004 play Almost, Maine is a series of nine absurdist vignettes about love and what drives the human heart set to the background of the aurora borealis. From a woman who carries her heart in a small paper bag after it broke into nineteen pieces to two friends who discover they’ve fallen for each other (more literally than you might expect), the citizens of Almost take readers and audiences on a journey to find love in small places. Almost, Maine was the most produced play in North American high schools from 2009-2012 as well as 2018-2019. The play has also spawned a book adaptation of the same name and a companion piece entitled Love/Sick. Almost, Maine is a great read for those who enjoy all kinds of love stories and are looking for a humorous, good-natured read.
365 Days/365 Plays by Suzan-Lori Parks
In November 2002, Suzan-Lori Parks, the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Topdog/Underdog, told her husband she was going to write a play a day for a whole year. “Yeah, baby,” he said from the couch, “that’d be cool.” And so she wrote a play every single day for a year. In the introduction to the collection she wrote, “It would be about being present and being committed to the artistic process every single day, regardless of the ‘weather.’ It became a daily meditation, a daily prayer celebrating the rich and strange process of a writing life.” With no play longer than ten minutes, you can actually read along a play a day and be inspired to start your own year-long writing journey!
Into the Woods with Book by James Lapine and Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
The cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold. Pulling from several Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Into the Woods tells the fractured tale of the Baker and his Wife. Unable to produce a child, the Baker and his Wife must embark on a scavenger hunt through the world of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack in the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel. Into the Woods first premiered on Broadway in 1987 and would go on to win Tony Awards for Best Score, Best Book, and Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife). Listen along to the Original Broadway Cast Recording on Spotify or Apple Music. Into the Woods is recommended for readers with an interest in fairytales or are interested in what “Happily Ever After” really means.
The Inheritance by Matthew Lopez
Inspired by E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End, The Inheritance examines what it means to be a gay man living in New York a generation after the AIDS epidemic. Two 30-somethings, Eric and Toby, are very much in love until they meet an older man haunted by the past and a younger man hungry for the future. Staged over the course of six hours, this two-part play will make you laugh and make you cry. In his review in Variety, Matt Trueman describes the play as a “vast, imperfect and unwieldy masterpiece that unpicks queer politics and neoliberal economics anew. In addressing the debt gay men owe to their forebears, it dares to ask whether the past hasn’t also sold the present up short.” The Inheritance premiered on Broadway on September 27, 2019 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. After 46 previews and 138 regular performances, the remaining performances were cancelled due to the coronavirus epidemic. The Inheritance is a great read for anyone interested in LGBT+ history and for anyone grappling with the past.
Fun Home with music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Lisa Korn, based on the book by Alison Bechdel (2013); Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris (2018); Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike by Christopher Durang (2012); The Producers with book, music, and lyrics by Mel Brooks (2001); Hir by Taylor Mac (2015); The Legend of Georgia McBridge by Matthew Lopez (2017); Significant Other by Joshua Harmon (2015); Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang (2009); Spring Awakening with music by Duncan Sheik, book and lyrics by Steven Sater (2006); Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 by Anna Deavere Smith (1992); Next to Normal with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt (2008)
Matthew Masino is a content creator, writer, and theatre director based in Chicago, Illinois. He graduated with a B.F.A. in Theatre Directing from Columbia College Chicago in 2019. Matthew began writing for the AWM blog in April 2020, just after the museum’s closure and has since written more than two dozen articles for the blog. He is also responsible for creating the AWM Destinations blog series. As a theatre artist, Matthew has worked with the International Voices Project, the Chicago Fringe Festival, and BYOT Productions. You can learn more by visiting his website www.matthewmasino.com.