50 American Playwrights That Everyone Should Know – Part IV

Anthony J. Piccione

They are the masterminds behind the plays that theatergoers of all kinds are treated to, whether it’s at the community or professional level. Without them, the actors, directors and designers would not have a brilliant show to bring to life, to begin with. It is true that theatre is a collaborative art form, but of all the roles involved, none of them require more artistic or creative ability than that of the playwright.

It is the playwrights who first create the show that the actors, directors and technicians will ultimately bring to life. Without them, there would be no show to put on in the first place. Yet it seems as if that – despite the enormous role that they play in this process – they do not get nearly as much credit from society for their contributions to the arts and culture as they should, especially here in America.

 Personally, not just as a young playwright himself – but as an individual that respects all kinds of artists in theatre and elsewhere – I’d like to see that change, and that is why I have decided to dedicate this five-part series to just 50 playwrights from the United States that everyone – especially those in the theatre community – ought to be familiar with. Each part in this series will contain 10 playwrights – in no particular order – who were among some of the most influential, critically acclaimed or thought-provoking playwrights in the history of American theatre. 

So without further ado,  here is the fourth part of my list of 50 American playwrights that everyone should know…

31.    Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) –

Few African-American writers of his generation attracted the same level of respect or controversy as Baraka. Although he is perhaps best known for his work as a poet, he also wrote several works for the stage in the 1960s and 1970s, which – like his poetry – often dealt with themes of race and black empowerment. The two most notable of these plays were Dutchman and A Black Mass.

32.    David Mamet (b. 1947) –

When it comes to writing unique dialogue for the stage, few playwrights can claim to be in the same league as Mamet. His distinct style can be found in numerous scripts for both the stage and screen that he has penned over the years. Perhaps the best example of this would be Glengarry Glen Ross, which won several Tony nominations and the Pulitzer Prize. Other works for the stage include Oleanna, American Buffalo, Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Race.

33.    David Rabe (b. 1940) –

During the 1970s, Rabe’s plays made him one of the most awarded playwrights of that decade. His most well-known and critically acclaimed play is Sticks and Bones, which earned him a Tony Award for Best Play in 197 2. Other notable works include In The Boom Boom Room, Streamers and Hurlyburly.

34.    John Patrick Shanley (b. 1950) –

Having written several scripts for the stage and screen, Shanley is one of the most acclaimed playwrights to achieve success in recent decades. He is perhaps best known for the play Doubt: A Parable, which won him four Tony Awards, a Drama Desk Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and has since been adapted into an opera. Other notable works include Savage in Limbo, Italian American Reconciliation, Psychopathia Sexualis and Outside Mullingar.

35.    Sam Shepard (b. 1943) –

As someone who also writes fiction and essays – and also can act – Shepard is perhaps one of the more multi talented playwrights to be featured on this list. For his work in theatre, he is best known for the play Buried Child, which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1979. Other notable plays include True West, Fool for Love and Curse of the Starving Class.

36.    Anna Deavere Smith (b. 1950) –

Although she is also known for acting in TV shows such as The West Wing and Nurse Jackie, Smith has previously received an enormous amount of critical acclaim over the past quarter-century for her work as a playwright. Perhaps her most notable work is her solo show Fires in the Mirror, which won her a Drama Desk Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Other notable works as a playwright include Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and Let Me Down Easy.

37.    Luis Valdez (b. 1940) –

Widely considered to have pioneered Chicano theatre, Valdez is perhaps one of the most significant Mexican-American playwrights in history. His primary achievement as a playwright was Zoot Suit. While this play that he penned and produced in the late-1970s was initially not well-received by everyone – particularly in the NYC theatre scene – his influence and importance as a playwright has come to be recognized more and more in recent years.

38.    Paula Vogel (b. 1951) –

When people say that Yale Drama School’s playwriting program is one of the greatest in the country, it is in large part due to the fact that Vogel is the chair of the department. Of her many works, her most critically acclaimed is How I Learned to Drive, which led to her winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. Other notable works include The Baltimore Waltz and This Long Christmas Ride Home.

39.    Wendy Wasserstein (1950-2006) –

By writing critically acclaimed works that touched on many topics from feminism to pop culture, Wasserstein became one of the most successful female playwrights of her generation. Her most well-known work is The Heidi Chronicles, which won her a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1989. Other notable works include Uncommon Women and Others, The Sisters Rosensweig and Old Money.

40.    August Wilson (1945-2005) –

In terms of both comedy and tragedy, perhaps no playwright in the 20th century – or perhaps any century – has been more effective at portraying the African-American experience of that era than Wilson. He is best-known for writing Fences, which won him a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Other notable plays include The Piano Lesson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

Stay tuned for the fifth and final part of this list! If you have any suggestions for playwrights that you believe should be on this list, feel free to let us know in the comments section.

This column was written by Anthony J. Piccione: Student, playwright, actor, poet and blogger currently based in Connecticut. To learn more about Anthony and his work, please visit his personal blog at www.anthonyjpiccione.tumblr.com. Also, be sure to like him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AnthonyJPiccione.OfficialPage), follow him on Twitter (@A_J_Piccione) and view his work on the New Play Exchange (www.newplayexchange.org/users/903/anthony-j-piccione).