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Who's the most recent African-American playwright to win a Pulitzer for drama? As of this writing, it's Suzan-Lori Parks, for her haunting Topdog/Underdog in 2002.
African-American writers for the stage to the fore in the mid-twentieth century.
Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 A Raisin in the Sun, titled after an image in a Langston Hughes poem, showed the frustration of young African-Americans, caught between the “go-slow” advice of the older generation and the beckoning opportunities of a capitalist economy. Her play won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.
Lonnie Elder III's 1965 Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, set in a Harlem barbershop, examined the life choices of young African-Americans. Amiri Baraka's The Dutch-man, which won the Obie Award for Best Off-Broadway Play in 1964, was an “in your face” assertion of African-American pride.
August Wilson: The Theatrical Champ
In recent years, the leading African-American playwright—and the leading American playwright, period—has been easy to identify. He is August Wilson, probably the most celebrated American dramatist to come of age since World War II.
Wilson's ongoing cycle of plays chronicling the African-American experience—one for each decade of the twentieth century—has emerged as one of the major theatrical achievements of our time. His mastery of speech rhythms (often reflecting blues idiom), the long monologue, and head-on conflict have made him a force in the American theater.
Wilson's focus on the African-American family, and the struggles and challenges it faced in the twentieth century, have been particularly rewarding for theatre audiences. Among his many gifts as a writer is his ability to focus on generational patterns and histories within families.
In an interview with Black World Today (April 2000), Wilson showed a writer's ability to identify the human essentials of a story, and his own preference for beginning with the African-American experience. “I remember my daughter calling me from college,” he recalled, “and telling me she had joined some Black Action Society and they were studying about Timbuktu. I told her that was nice, but asked why didn't she start with her grandmother and then work your way back to Timbuktu. It didn't make any sense to me for her to know all about Timbuktu and know nothing about her grandmother.”
Wilson's success as a playwright on Broadway (and elsewhere) is without recent parallel. (See the following timeline.)