Native Son Credit: Michael Brosilow

So you can’t go to the theater because (gestures weakly toward everything). Sure, there are streaming productions galore right now—even if they lack the communal experience of live performance. But there is also a special thrill to curling up with a great script and becoming a director in your own mind, imagining how this world on the page looks and feels in three dimensions. 

Chicago has been blessed with many great dramatists, and in recent years there has been an explosion of new theatrical voices. It’s impossible to provide a comprehensive list of must-read plays from the last decade or so. And unfortunately, some of the most memorable shows have yet to be published in a widely accessible format. (Get on that, publishers!) But here are a few titles to get you going—including a couple on history and practices in Chicago theater.

The e-word

For good or ill, our local theater scene has historically been defined by the notion of ensemble. What that means is open to interpretation (as a friend who is a biologist and theatermaker once observed on hearing encomia about the theater community, “biologically, community means organisms competing for resources”). But two recent books examine the ensemble concept through the lens of history and artistic practice. 

Mark Larson’s Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater (2019, Agate Midway Books) is an exhilarating, exhaustive (700 pages and 300 interview subjects) overview of the organisms that made Chicago theater world-class, from the 1950s on, focusing on artists and companies both legendary and overlooked. 

For an in-depth look at how the theatrical sausage gets made, Ensemble-Made Chicago: A Guide to Devised Theater (2018, Northwestern University Press) by Chloe Johnston and Coya Paz Brownrigg is indispensable. The authors are theater academics, but also have firsthand experience in creating new work in ensemble—Paz Brownrigg was a founder of Teatro Luna and is currently artistic director of Free Street, while Johnston worked with the Neo-Futurists. This book combines interviews with members of companies such as Albany Park Theater Project, Honey Pot Performance, and Lookingglass, while also providing practical hands-on exercises for creating work in ensemble.

The magnificent seven

Chicago playwright Ike Holter‘s “Rightlynd” cycle of seven loosely connected plays, which began with 2014’s Exit Strategy at Jackalope and concluded with 2019’s Lottery Day at the Goodman, offers a kaleidoscopic and often scathing portrait of a city dealing with everything from the crisis in public education to police violence to gentrification (which is usually the knot tying all the other issues together). But it’s not docudrama: Holter sprinkles in superheroes, roman à clef nods to Chicago’s storefront theater (most notably in 2019’s Red Rex with Steep Theatre), and plenty of uproarious righteous humor. Exit Strategy was supposed to be revived this upcoming winter with Victory Gardens, but the COVID shutdown ended that plan. However, that title and several others in the cycle (as well as his non-Rightlynd plays) have been published and can be ordered through your favorite indie bookseller.

Border drama

Isaac Gomez made his Steppenwolf debut in 2018 with La Ruta, a searing drama about the women who work in the maquiladoras (and have been murdered or disappeared in huge numbers over the past few decades) in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from Gomez’s hometown of El Paso. That play was based on interviews Gomez conducted with the women of Juarez. But he also created a one-woman show, The Way She Spoke, also drawn from interviews, that premiered in 2019 with New York’s Audible Theater, starring Kate del Castillo. It’s available as a download with Audible

Native daughter

Nambi E. Kelley, who is now a writer for Showtime’s The Chi, was born in New York City but grew up in Chicago, where she started her career as an actor and playwright. Her 2016 adaptation of Richard Wright’s classic Chicago novel Native Son (a coproduction of Court Theatre and American Blues Theater) brought the story of Bigger Thomas to life in a swift and searing 90 minutes. It’s available in script form through Samuel French. Kelley has since adapted Toni Morrison’s Jazz for the stage in addition to her television writing.

Seeing The Light

Like Kelley, Loy Webb is now a television writer (for AMC’s NOS4A2). Her 2018 playwriting debut, The Light with New Colony, was a compelling and taut two-hander about a Black couple dealing with the aftermath of a sexual assault and other relationship baggage. It’s available through Samuel French. She followed that up with 2019’s His Shadow at 16th Street Theater, about a college football player personally affected by police violence. We hope that she, like so many other fine Chicago dramatists of the times, will be back in production here as soon as COVID recedes into history.  v