It’s near-impossible to predict with absolute certainty who the influential artists of each generation will be. But we’d lose out on a lot of fun if people didn’t speculate on the unknowable. And I like fun, dammit. So let’s imagine.
Imagine me waking up in the dark. A lone lamp sways from the ceiling. I see a strange silhouette in the corner of the cramped room. I can barely make out the shape of their eyes in the dim glow of their cigarette.
“Guess who good playwright,” they say in a thick Russian accent. “Then you go free.” It takes a moment, but I decipher their meaning.
My head is pounding. I don’t understand their request for such absurdly specific information, but I’m in no position to protest.
“Okay,” I say. “These are my picks.”
Annie Baker is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright known for her admiration of the small moments of humanity in places we don’t think to look. These moments are found in the drama of theatre games performed at a community acting class, the numbing duties of movie theater ushers, or the claustrophobia of a gaudy bed and breakfast. Her characters are typically outcasts or loners—sympathetic, conflicted, and strikingly human. The brilliance of Annie Baker lies in her ability to see pain, humor, and beauty in the small silences of our lives.
I’m hard-pressed to think of a comparable playwright that creates with the same singular playfulness as Suzan-Lori Parks. The protégé of James Baldwin, Suzan-Lori’s been in the game longer than most playwrights on this list and still retains a child-like experimentality in her writing. She’s wrought two plays based on The Scarlet Letter that riff on the source material and a three-part epic about a slave that joins the Confederacy to gain his freedom. She’s also written an anthology of a play-a-day for a year and another for the first one hundred days of Donald Trump’s presidency (bless her). One of the most unique writers on this list, Suzan-Lori Parks is a force of nature to be reckoned with.
I love Lucas Hnath’s work because of his skill at writing “debate plays.” He doesn’t pick sides—he presents the truthful viewpoint of all of his characters and lets the audience hash out with whom they empathize the most. Lucas Hnath is also the youngest playwright on this list, with time to grow and surprise. My favorite work of his is “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” a sequel to A Doll’s House written over a hundred years since it was first performed. In it, Nora Helmer returns to her old home to acquire divorce papers never signed by Torvald. Besides the unabashed truthfulness of his character’s convictions, Lucas Hnath’s imagination is sharp, as seen in the inventive premise of A Doll’s House, Part 2. Lucas Hnath’s plays get you talking well after the curtain’s rung down, and the American theatre is all the better for it.
Let’s get weird.
“[Taylor] Mac uses “judy” (lowercase) as a gender pronoun, chosen in reference to American actress Judy Garland,” reads Mac’s Wikipedia page—a window into the larger-than-life persona of Taylor Mac. Judy is not known for being subtle. A drag queen, actor, producer, director, and remarkable talent, most of Mac’s plays are designed to unsettle and rile. Judy created and performed A 24-Decade History of Popular Music—a performance that, as the title suggests, takes 24 hours to finish. I love the “fuck you” nature of judy’s work, particularly in Hir, a play that revolves around a dysfunctional family dealing with issues of trauma, abuse, and gender identity. Taylor Mac is not interested in conforming to the “rules” of contemporary theatre, a perspective that I’m keen to champion.
Amy Herzog writes messy, human characters like no other. Most of her plays deal with good people making mistakes and doing their best to make their way in the world. You know: humans. Herzog’s work is gut-wrenching and emotionally fraught as our day-to-day existence. She’s one of the most truthful playwrights on this list—we know characters that talk like hers, who avoid conflict like hers. Amy Herzog’s plays are a quiet revolution, in that they arrest the senses by being utterly grounded.
The Russian smacks their lips. “Da. This will do.” I’m startled by the sensation of something being pulled over my head. The light of the overhead lamp becomes muffled with cross-hatching of thread spanning my vision. It feels scratchy—probably a burlap sack. I feel myself being jostled by two strangers behind me. They transport me in what I guess to be an elevator. They lead me down some corridors until I feel bright light through the sack—rough hands untie my bound arms. A moment. I hear nothing. I take off the bag on my head. I’m in a field of grain in the middle of the day—no Russians in view. No anything in view—my surroundings are utterly unfamiliar. But, as far as I know, I’m free. I shake my head.
“That was super dumb.” I say. I pick a direction and start walking.
Have more playwrights to add to this list? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.