FAMILIARITY WITH A VARIETY of plays is important for the success of every drama student pursuing theatre after high school. But with so many choices, where do you start? Below is a must-read list of plays to know before you head to college, the continuation of a Top 20 list published by Dramatics in 2014. Taken together, these plays help build a solid foundation and an open mind about what’s possible in the 21st century.

More than half of these plays are written by playwrights of color, which reflects an important trend in American theatre. Their stories cut across social, cultural, and geographical boundaries. All are by groundbreaking playwrights who redefined the rules for the well-told tale, whose distinctive voices have influenced many other artists, and who have added something new to the American theatrical canon, exploring subjects onstage that deepen, challenge, rage against, or embrace what it means to be human.

NOTE: Some of these plays contain adult language and other mature content themes.

20TH CENTURY PLAYS

A drama student's success depends on familiarity with a variety of plays

A drama student’s success depends on familiarity with a variety of plays. Photo by Susan Doremus.

A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White by Adrienne Kennedy
As a black writer explores her memories, white movie stars — Bette Davis, Shelley Winters, and Marlon Brando, among them — portray scenes from her life. The play conveys how a black woman exists in a white society.

for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange
Poetic monologues, dance, and music in this choreopoem weave stories of love, empowerment, and loss for seven African-American women. In 1976, this play became Broadway’s second work by a black female playwright.

Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
This courtroom drama fictionalizes the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which a man was tried for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. “It’s not about science versus religion,” explained Lawrence. “It’s about the right to think.”

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
A pair of bedraggled companions await Godot, who never arrives. This tragicomedy was voted the most significant English language play of the 20th century in a poll of theatre professionals conducted by the National Theatre in 1998.

Fefu and Her Friends by María Irene Fornés
Themes of isolation, entrapment, and gender are explored with an all-female cast in this drama that revolutionized environmental staging to create an immersive audience experience.

The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter
This masterpiece of absurdist theatre, described by theatre critic Irving Wardle as a “comedy of menace,” portrays a party gone horribly wrong, when two thuggish representatives of state conformism victimize the birthday boy until they cart him away.

True West by Sam Shepard
Two brothers vie for control of a Hollywood screenplay, as Shepard’s signature mix of violence and comedy leads to absolute mayhem and prefigures the collapse of the American family.

Yankee Dawg You Die by Philip Kan Gotanda
This play addresses the hot-button issue of Asian-American representation in media with equal parts careful analysis and intentional provocation. Arguments are grounded in flesh-and-blood characters, whose big struggles and small triumphs are deeply moving.

Children of a Lesser God by Mark Medoff
Set in a school for the deaf, this play challenges long-held misconceptions about deaf culture, questioning whether a passionate love can transcend deep divisions between hearing and non-hearing worlds.

TURN OF THE 21ST CENTURY

The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler
“Probably the most important piece of political theater of the last decade” proclaimed the New York Times in 2006. This collection of monologues deals with aspects of the female experience, including consensual and nonconsensual sex, reproductive issues, and sexual violence.

Marisol by José Rivera
Caught in a celestial uprising to save the universe, what can Marisol do to save herself? This apocalyptic drama was intended as metaphor, but its depictions of urban violence, environmental devastation, and armies of displaced persons make it incredibly timely.

A Language of Their Own by Chay Yew
Told with wit and insight, this AIDS drama untangles mysteries of the fragile yet resilient heart through a breakup between two men and the new relationships they navigate. The intimate play’s choral structure makes it highly theatrical.

Metamorphoses by Mary Zimmerman
Adapted from Ovid’s tales of transformation, this lyrical drama bridges myth and modernism, offering timeless themes through a theatrical mix of storytelling and visual imagery.

Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith
This award-winning tragedy follows a fair-skinned black man and a dark-skinned black woman from childhood to adulthood and from friendship to love. The promise of marriage and their future family is destroyed by prejudice and violence.

Harvest by Manjula Padmanabhan
This sci-fi critique of globalization imagines a world where impoverished characters in developing nations sell body parts to wealthy Westerners to survive. Winner of the 1997 Onassis Prize as best new international play, the story doesn’t seem so futuristic anymore.

THE PAST DECADE

Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Hip-hop and history combine in this astonishing mashup of rap, rhythm and blues, soul, and traditional musical theatre to explore the life of a Founding Father and political mastermind.

Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes
With redemption just around the corner, this Pulitzer Prize-winning meditation portrays characters confronting and coming to terms with demons of war and drugs thanks to the help of others. It is the second segment of a trilogy following one soldier’s journey after returning home from war.

Good Kids by Naomi Iizuka
Written for teenage students to perform, this drama is guaranteed to provoke important conversations in its exploration of what happens to a community when sexual assault goes public on Facebook and Twitter.

The Flick by Annie Baker
This comedy of the mundane features three 20-something underachievers trying to connect while sweeping and mopping a rundown movie theatre. Humor, heartbreak, and nuanced dialogue won this play a Pulitzer Prize in 2014.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph
Set during the early days of the Gulf War, this haunting and funny play interweaves stories of American soldiers with the ghost of a tiger they shot, as they all seek forgiveness, redemption, and the meaning of life and the afterlife.

Are there other scripts you think should be on these lists? Share your ideas below!

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