Five Plays Written by Women you Should Immediately Add to your Reading List

Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash

Have you been staring at that 700-page novel on your bedside table for too long? Are you finding it difficult to really delve into a longform piece of literature? Do you long for some brilliant writing that won’t take you hours to digest?

Well, we here at SNWF have just the list for you! It may seem bizarre to consider reading play texts – after all, aren’t plays meant to be seen live? The easy answer is yes, they are, but why should that stop you from reading the text from which these amazing performances are born?

There is ample reason to pick up a play text:

  1. They’re incredibly short: usually 70–100 pages.
  2. They’re fast paced and led by either punchy or expressive dialogue.
  3. There’s no guarantee that a production of a certain play will be accessible for you personally. Producing a play takes up a lot of time, effort and money. It makes sense to read and enjoy the play whilst you wait for an opportunity to see it!

With these reasons in mind, let’s have a look at five contemporary plays written by women that really should be sneaking their way onto your reading list.

5. Venus – Suzan Lori-Parks

Suzan-Lori Parks is arguably one of the most influential and electrifying woman playwrights in the contemporary American drama scene. Venus, a play of Parks’ from 1996, tells the harrowing story of Saartjie Baartman, often referred to at the time as the ‘Hottentot Venus.’ As the ‘Hottentot Venus,’ Saartjie became a star upon the stages of 19th Century London freak shows (Signature Theatre), where she was horrifically put on display for white Europeans to ogle at her body features. Parks has noted that most of the play “doesn’t just swallow the story whole and regurgitate it onto the stage. It embraces the unrecorded truth” (Sellar, 50: 2014) and part of the reason for this is that there is no information on Baartman’s life in her own words. Parks’ Venus brings a necessary story to life and asks the audience to consider the unheard voices in history.

4. Annie Mae’s Movement – Yvette Nolan

Yvette Nolan’s Annie Mae’s Movement tells the difficult and troubling story of Anna Mae Aquash, a Mi’kmaq First Nations activist who worked with the American Indian Movement (AIM). The victim of a gruesome murder at the end of 1975, what exactly happened to Anna Mae is still disputed but it is heavily suggested that her murder was orchestrated by members of AIM who believed Anna Mae to be an FBI informant (New York Times). Nolan treats Anna Mae’s story with care and compassion and weaves in First Nation mythology and superstition in a way that is simultaneously respectful and engrossing. A painful story but a necessary read, Annie Mae’s Movement is fabulously written.

3. The Revolutionists – Lauren Gunderson

How often do you get to enjoy the ruthless and bloody history of the French Revolution from the perspective of women? Definitely not often enough. Well, Lauren Gunderson has filled that void with her play, The Revolutionists, which imagines Marie Antoinette, Olympe de Gouges, Charlotte Corday and Marianne Angelle (who is an amalgamation of several Haitian revolutionary women) in conversation with each other. Antoinette is obsessed with ribbons, de Gouges just wants to write a play, Corday is going to kill Jean-Paul Marat if it’s the last thing she does and Angelle urges all three to consider that a free France is not a free world. A play about “compatriots and chosen sisters, and how we actually go about changing the world” (Lauren Gunderson), The Revolutionists is equal parts funny and feminist. It’s a play about the writing of a real play that led to de Gouges’ execution; how could you possibly need anything more metadramatic than that?

2. Black Love – Chinonyerem Odimba

It’s a musical! Acclaimed theatre-maker Chinonyerem Odimba’s recent foray into musical theatre tells the story of sister and brother, Aurora and Orion, as they navigate life and rediscover what family means to them. Odimba wanted to go beyond traditional play format to create a “multi-disciplinary and innovative piece” (Brixton Blog) which is “an ode to Black music” (Paines Plough). Paines Plough describe Black Love as “an explosion of form-busting storytelling” and with a number of real life stories and a plethora of new R&B songs, we don’t disagree! While waiting to get tickets to see this marvellous musical, why not get hold of the play text at Nick Hern Books?

1. Men on Boats – Jaclyn Backhaus

Jaclyn Backhaus’ 2015 play, Men on Boats, is a gender-bending retelling of the 1869 Powell Geographic Expedition. Led by John Wesley Powell, the Powell Expedition was funded by the US government and aimed to map significant segments of the Green and Colorado rivers (Utah Geological Survey). In Backhaus’s play, the ten men who took part in the journey are played entirely by a non-cis white male cast, drawing attention to the fallacy of the white, masculinised ideal explorer celebrated during the colonisation of North America. Funny, thought-provoking and with a casting call that is, as the LA Times punchily put it, “no gimmick”, Men on Boats is a play text you should definitely sink your teeth into. (Get it? Sink? Boats? Ok ok, I’ll stop now).

So, will you consider giving a few play texts a read? Are there any play texts that we’ve missed that you’ve enjoyed reading? Let us know in the comments!

About the Author:

Hi, I’m Beth (she/her) and I am a PhD student at the University of Surrey and your co-Assistant Festival Director for SNWF 2022! I research and write historical/ historiographic fiction and I am particularly interested in intersectional feminist narratives. My favourite book is Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and my favourite play is The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson. I also love a creepy horror tale or two and particularly enjoy Julia Armfield’s short stories in this genre! My favourite book of 2021 is The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed.

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