Seven play scripts are fanned out cover up on a round table. Another book entitled Contemporary Black Theatre and Performance is positioned below the plays.
The Understudy, Chicago's only theater bookstore, displays some of the titles that the staff is most excited about this season. Credit: Courtesy the Understudy

Since opening in March 2023, Andersonville’s Understudy bookstore and cafe has stayed busy by offering a robust selection of theater-related titles, coffee, pastries, and public programming. With the fall theater season about to kick into high gear, we asked the staff what they’ve been reading lately.

The Understudy
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Witch by Jen Silverman
Though this play had its world premiere at Writers Theatre back in 2018, it’s a perennial bestseller at the Understudy. In this witty, modern retelling of the Jacobean drama The Witch of Edmonton, when the devil comes knocking at their doors, those in the village of Edmonton are forced to decide what they’ll sacrifice to change their own lives. Poignant, devastating, and an excellent fall read! Understudy employees have a soft spot for this play, which was one of the first staged readings we produced. The Artistic Home presents a revival of the play October 28-December 3 at the Den Theatre.

The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin
I set out to write a book about what to do to make a great work of art. Instead, it revealed itself to be a book on how to be.” —Rick Rubin. The Creative Act is a beautiful and generous course of study that illuminates the path of the artist as a road we all can follow. It distills the wisdom gleaned from a lifetime’s work into a luminous reading experience that puts the power to create moments—and lifetimes—of exhilaration and transcendence within closer reach for all of us.

Fat Ham by James Ijames
Winner of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for drama! A modern retelling of Hamlet set in the deep south, this play explores Black queerness, intergenerational trauma, joy, and complex family dynamics—all while giving us a karaoke number or two! Fat Ham was the very first pick of our play reading club here at the Understudy.

English by Sanaz Toossi
Winner of the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for drama and playing at the Goodman in 2024, this play is about four Iranian adults preparing to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). The stakes are high, as passing this exam will allow each student to migrate and fight for their dreams abroad. 

Tambo & Bones by Dave Harris
Playing at Refracted Theatre Company this fall! A unique, dark comedy about two characters who find themselves trapped in a minstrel show. How do they escape? 

. . . what the end will be by Mansa Ra
Commissioned by Roundabout Theatre Company, three generations of men live under one roof and grapple with their own truths of what it means to be Black and gay. It’s an exploration of pride, pain, and patience through the unflinching eyes of fathers and sons.

Ain’t No Mo’ by Jordan E. Cooper
An alternate present-day U.S., where every Black American is given a one-way plane ticket to Africa. Told in surreal, witty vignettes, this play is hilarious and heartbreaking all at the same time.

Mariela in the Desert by Karen Zacarías
Set in the northern Mexican desert in 1950, Mariela in the Desert is a deadly mystery—a layered yet profoundly honest story of what happens to a family when creativity is forced to dry and wither away.

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy by Ryan Calais Cameron
Nominated for best new play at the 2023 Olivier Awards. Father figures and fashion tips. Lost loves and jollof rice. African empires and illicit sex. Good days and bad days. Six young Black men meet for group therapy, and let their hearts—and imaginations—run wild. Inspired by Ntozake Shange’s essential work for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy is a profound and playful work of drama.

Contemporary Black Theatre and Performance: Acts of Rebellion, Activism, and Solidarity edited by DeRon S. Williams, Khalid Y. Long, and Martine Kei Green-Rogers
Coedited by Chicago’s own Martine Kei Green-Rogers, dean of the Theatre School at DePaul University, this book is a big hit at the Understudy. How are Black artists, activists, and pedagogues wielding acts of rebellion, activism, and solidarity to precipitate change? How have contemporary performances impacted Black cultural, social, and political struggles? What are the ways in which these acts and artists engage varied Black identities and explore shared histories? Contemporary Black Theatre and Performance investigates these questions to illuminate the relationship between performance, identity, intersectionality, and activism in North America and beyond.