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Reading Activist Playwrights, Writing Activist Plays

Author: Anissa Weinraub


Academy at Palumbo

Year: 2016

Seminar: Thinking Black, Writing Revolution: The Harlem Renaissance in Conversation with the Black Arts Movement

Grade Level: 9-12

Keywords: Activist Art, black arts movement, Creative Writing, English, Theater

School Subject(s): English, Theater

This unit asks students to engage in reading and writing plays that feature explicit political, contemporary, issues-oriented themes.  Centering Black, queer, and feminist/womanist artists’ work, this unit will help students investigate a range of the form and content used by playwrights in the 20th century, anchored in a Black aesthetic being articulated during the Black Arts Movement.   Students will use these plays as “mentor texts,” as they embark onto the second half of the unit: generating their own original theater pieces.

This unit focuses students to engage in multiple lines of inquiry: researching the context of the play and playwright; uncovering the structure, design, and genre of the “big picture” of the piece and how the form relates to the message of the play; understanding how dialogue, character, and staging contribute to the larger effect of the piece and how the conflict(s) emerge(s); and evaluating the stylistic elements of a piece of political theater.   The second phase, and perhaps, larger intent of this unit, will then be realized through students endeavoring to write a theater piece that directly expresses their own worldview about the issues of society, community, power and identity.  The hope is that their own aesthetic will emerge as their generation displays its own particular versions of voice and identification, specific to this moment in time.

Download Unit: 16.04.03-unit.pdf

Did you try this unit in your classroom? Give us your feedback here.

Full Unit Text

I teach high school students both English and Drama.  In the drama classes I teach, I have noticed that many of the scenes produced by my students are laden with homophobic, sexist, and anti-Black sentiment (even when these same students are queer, women, and/or Black.)  For instance, in a basic improv prompt I find that my students succumb to stereotype and thus often recreate narratives that have been packaged by profit-seeking media and people who do not share their identities – i.e.”Jerry Springer/Baby Mama Drama” or “Hoop Dreams/Let’s get an NBA deal out of the ghetto” narratives.  This mimicry of images and narratives is another way in which self- and community-hatred is perpetuated.  At those moments, it is very clear that these young people are lacking the space and practice of imagining other worlds and possibilities.   I believe that more exposure to theater that is explicitly “political” in intent, as well as expertly crafted in form and content, will help them push their own creations.


This curriculum unit is designed to work in concert with earlier units in which we build different “sets of muscles” as performers, directors, playwrights, and theater-goers.  Students excel at applying the theatrical tools we focus on in class (face, voice, breath, body) to scripted work, but often fall short of my own expectations and their own creative potentials when it comes to original, self-generated work.  By bringing in these mentor texts, anchored in the Black Arts Movement, I hope to expose my students to works written by playwrights who sought to engage their current lived realities, throwing off the sorts of stereotypes found in mainstream representations of the lives and experiences of people often deemed to be Other.  Reading works by writers who have embraced their history, positionality, and aesthetic distinctiveness, I hope to invite my students to see the value of doing the same and translating those reflections into works that express their unique take on the world.


Ultimately, the playwriting unit I teach in the Spring semester will be an opportunity for my students to put what they have learned into practice.  With the support of a teaching artist from the Philadelphia Young Playwrights, I would like to see my students develop richer, identity- and issues-oriented pieces that reflect more of their worldviews.  The proposed curriculum unit will help them to see how other artists – even from earlier generations – have created plays and theater experiences that spoke back to society and their community and imagined a transformed world.  I want them to be able to take issue with and critique those works, as well as find solace and inspiration in them.  Further, I want them to use other plays as mentor texts as they craft their own pieces, and to do their own research in order to develop their topics, themes, characters, and plots that are rich and multi-dimensional.


Creativity beyond standardization

“Educators, and especially educators who have a particular and very special relationship to words and the national language, ought to consider quite literally the question: What good is the word without the wisdom?” – Poet, Editor, Educator David Llorens  (qtd in Bracey, et al. 179)


I am struck by David Llorens’ words, as they articulate the internal tensions that many of us who teach in the public schools must unpack.  We are told too often by administrators and bureaucrats that we should be in constant pursuit of outputting test scores that show “student growth” – as opposed to cultivating young people with critical and engaged consciousness who can use their skills to build a more equitable world.  This testing-oriented objective sits squarely atop the so-called “school reform” business of the last decade(s) – a neoliberal project that would turn school systems into a marketplace, students into data, educators into deliverers of standardized instruction, and parents into consumers.  (Lipman, 9; Picower and Mayorga, 14)


And, as the project of capitalism has never been “race neutral” in terms of the exploitative sets of relations and resource extraction that profit requires, neither is the matrix of policies enacted through neoliberal school reform.  Indeed, as the authors of What’s Race Got to Do with It detail at length, the methods of standardization, privatization, and disinvestment in education disproportionately negatively affect low income students of color, as those policies seek to support and sustain the contemporary economic relations and needs of our heavily bifurcated world, i.e. low wage service workers vs. high wage financial capitalists, prison labor vs. high tech start-up innovators.  (Picower, et al. 8)


But we know better – or feel more deeply –about our purpose in helping to raise children and cultivate their critical thinking and consciousness, than to succumb to delivering standardized instruction.


Because, as David Llorens reminds us: “What good is the word without the wisdom?”  What is the purpose of a rich literacy-focused education, except to help students “read the word and the world.”? (Friere and Macedo, qtd in Christianson 58.)


As Sonia Sanchez so directly lays out in her 1974 poem, Introduction (Queens of the Universe:

“white schools teach/ Black children to hate themselves, each other/ and their parents. / white schools teach our/ children tomish ways./ white schools bring/ our children in contact with unholy people/ who contaminate not only their minds but/ their bodies as well.” (qtd in Bracey, et al. 116)


I see this as a direct request/demand to me and all teachers who work with majority Black students.  We are being asked: “Which side of history are we on?” (Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders)   Llorens’ reminder to aim toward accessing “wisdom” and Sanchez’s scathing critique of “white schools” should tell us that we must be working toward student expression, self- and community-knowledge and

-actualization, humanization, and critical thinking.


To do this, our job as educators is to provide texts that meet students in their lived experiences, create units that ask them to dig into their worldviews and question who/how they are in their lives, and give a practice space to engage in a process of inquiry, knowledge cultivation and co-creation of culture.   The process of playwriting can successfully meet these objectives.


See the objectives listed above.  We will engage in small group reading of plays, researching context of the plays, performing a scene from the play for the whole class.  We will discuss the form and content choices of the playwright, and explore our own opinions on how to express political messages through theater.  Then we will work to brainstorm, research, develop, revise, edit, and publish student-written original plays “with a message.”

Classroom Activities

Sample Lessons:


Week 2, Day 1:

Objective: SWBAT choose key scenes that illustrate the form and content of their play IOT synthesize into the 10 minute excerpt of the play.


  1. Warm Up:

Medley game!

Break into your play reading groups.

Think of 4 songs that have a similar theme.  Pull out lines and phrases from each of the 4 songs to build a medley.


Example: Christmas medley


Practice for 3 minutes.  Perform for the class.


Lots of laughter!


  1. Direct Instruction:

Today you will do the same thing with your plays.  You need to make some serious choices to build up your 10 minute excerpt – which you will be rehearsing and performing for the class next week.


Steps/Parameters for group work:

  1. Go back to your stickie notes that you have been taking as you’ve been reading.
  2. Each person offers up their ideas for key moments in the play.
  3. Try to get a diversity of content: emotions, conflicts, characters, issues etc.
  4. Make sure what you perform is a good illustration of the format of the play: style of language and stage directions, how it looks on stage.
  5. Make decisions with your group – listen, find overlap, compromise
  6. Check that we can see different moments from across the time and narrative arc of the play, so that your excerpt tells a story.


  1. Group Work:

Students will work in their groups.  Teacher will check in as needed.

Students will compile a “cut” of the script that fulfills the requirements, so that they can begin to rehearse.


Exit: Show teacher progress.

Homework: Finalize the “cut” of the show.


Week 4, Day 1:

Objective: SWBAT individually and collectively brainstorm lists of ideas IOT generate a focus for play.


  1. Warm Ups:

Zip Zap Zop


  1. Independent Brainstorm work:

In your portfolio, fold a piece of paper in half vertically.

On the front of the paper:

Left Column:  Things that changed the world

Write for 2 minutes.


Right Column:  Things that changed Me.

Write for 2 minutes.


Flip the paper over:

Left Column: Things that could change the world

Write for 2 minutes.


Right column: Things that could change me.

Write for 2 minutes.


Go back through your list and star the top 3 things that speak to you.

Now, from your list of 12 ideas, walk around the room and add to the big pieces of paper on the walls.

Choose 1 thing from each of your 4 lists to add to the collective list.


After students write, they may go look at the collective lists in a gallery walk.


  1. Individual writing:

Now, focus in on one thing (either from your own list or from the collective list) and allow it to inspire you.


Write for 5 minutes a 10-line scene from that point of inspiration.


For the last 10 minutes of class:

Get into groups of 3-4 and workshop with each other.

Take turns reading each other’s work out loud, having different people read the different characters’ voices.


Exit:  Make a note of: What works?  What stands out to you?  What do you want to keep?  What inspires you to keep writing?


Week 4, Day 3:

Objective: SWBAT individually and collectively brainstorm lists of ideas IOT generate a focus for play.


  1. Warm ups

Who else is in here?

Stand in a circle.

Student gives a generic location (e.g. kitchen, park, etc.)

One student goes into the circle and begins miming (+3 words max.) in a way that builds a character that is appropriate to the location.

Students get tapped on the shoulder and need to enter into the location.  They can join what the first student is doing, or they add on to the scene to show more variety of activity in the location.

Try to get 5-10 students into the location.


  1. Individual Brainstorming:

– Look at your list of potential issues that matter to you.

– Make 3 columns.

– In column 1 – Write out three people (or things, if you want to personify something non-human) who would be in a scene about this issue.

– In column 2 – Write out three other people (or things, if you want to personify something non-human) who might have some type of conflict with any/all of the people from column 1

– In column 3 – Write out three other people (or things, if you want to personify something non-human) who could also be in a scene about this issue, but maybe you wouldn’t expect.


  1. Start playing! (Individual and then Group)

– Choose any 2 characters from any of the lists and write a 10 line scene with them.

– Get into groups of 4 with the other students working on the same issue.

– Assign roles to 2 of the group members to read the script.

– Then, decide on one more person from the 3 column list to enter the scene.

– The 3 characters will then improv for an additional minute, to see what comes up.

– Switch, so that this happens for each of the 4 group members.


  1. Reflect

– As a group reflect on these questions:  Which issues, scenes or characters capture your interest?  What from today do you want to continue to work on?  What “cool things” could you envision coming from today’s first brainstorm?

– Write down ALL of your ideas!  We’ll use them to keep working tomorrow.







The students in my classes are from a variety of backgrounds.  The majority are Black (African American, African, and Caribbean). I also have a sizable population of Southeast and East Asian students, white students, Muslim and/or Arab students, and Latin@ students (as well as LGBTQ students of all racial backgrounds).  A suggested amendment to this unit would be to include plays that reflect a diversity of activist topics, and allow the groups of students to choose.


Secondly, if educators are worried about using work from the Black Arts Movement for the reason that it may be “too racially charged,” it is important to realize that all of the texts we share in our classrooms make a political statement about race; the presence of whiteness, the centering of white characters, and/or the absence of characters of color who possess agency within the story is equally “racially charged.”  We teach in a school system that proposes that the Western, white canon is “universal” and therefore not “racialized,” but we owe it to ourselves and our students to push past those notions and get comfortable exploring a range of authors and works.

Annotated Bibliography

Baraka, A.(2011). The Black Arts Movement: Its Meaning and Potential. Nka: Journal

of Contemporary African Art29(1), 22-31. Duke University Press. Retrieved

February 14, 2016, from Project MUSE database.


This is an excellent encapsulation of Amiri Baraka’s reflections back on the founding of the Black Arts Movement.



Christiansen, Linda. Reading, Writing and Rising Up: Teaching about Social Justice

and the Power of the Written Word.  Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools, Ltd.

  1. Print.


Linda Christainsen is a long-time social justice-oriented high school teacher.  She writes for the publication, Rethinking Schools, and this is a grouping of several of her literacy arts units.



Fabio, Sarah Webster.  “Tripping with Black Writing.” S.O.S. – Calling All Black

People: A Black Arts Movement Reader. Ed. John Bracey, Sonia Sanchez, James

Smethurst.  University of Massachusetts Press. 2014. 145-50. Print.


As the title sounds, Sarah Webster Fabio goes on a journey through examples of Black writing over the past several centuries, giving her take on how the form and content shifted as Black people moved toward liberation.  Her own writing style eschews a conventional, conservative, Eurocentric tone.



Fuller, Hoyt.  “Towards a Black Aesthetic.”  S.O.S. – Calling All Black People: A Black

Arts Movement Reader. Ed. John Bracey, Sonia Sanchez, James Smethurst.

University of Massachusetts Press. 2014. 179-84. Print.


Powerfully written, Hoyt Fuller makes a case for defining a Black aesthetic.





Gayle, Addison. “Cultural Strangulation: Black Literature and the White Aesthetic.”

S.O.S. – Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader. Ed. John

Bracey, Sonia Sanchez, James Smethurst.  University of Massachusetts Press. 2014. 157-61. Print.


Addison Gayle explains, with detailed evidence, how embedded white supremacy is in Western Literature since the Greeks.



Lipman, Pauline. High Stakes Education.  New York: RoutledgeFalmer. 2004. Print


A necessary overview of neoliberal education policy and its consequences on schools, communities, and students of color.



Lipsitz, George. How Racism Takes Place. 2011. Print.


George Lipsitz shows how US urban policy has created racialized spaces which lock in benefits and opportunities along racial lines.



Llorens, David.  “What Good the Word without the Wisdom? Or ‘English Ain’t

Relevant.’” S.O.S. – Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader. Ed.

John Bracey, Sonia Sanchez, James Smethurst.  University of Massachusetts

Press. 2014. 151-57. Print.


This is a necessary read for anyone who teaches Black students.  Llorens pushes educators to think about the purpose of an English education and why it may be unwelcomed when not taught with cultural relevance.



Mafe, Diana Adesola. “Black Women On Broadway: The Duality Of Lorraine

Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun And Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls.”

American Drama 15.2 (2006): 30-47. International Bibliography of Theatre &

Dance with Full Text. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.


This article explores the duality of the two plays as being seen as “universal” stories at the same time as being Black feminist plays.





Pate, Alexs. “A Conversation with Ntozake Shange.” Black Renaissance 10.2 (2010):

78,85,151. ProQuest. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.


A beautiful interview with Ntozake Shange about her art.



Picower, Bree, and Edwin Mayorga. What’s Race Got to Do with It: How Current

School Reform Policy Maintains Racial and Economic Inequality. 2015. Print.


This anthology looks at neoliberal school reform as a “many headed hydra” that all adds up to negative consequences to students of color and their schools and communities.


Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement. 2003. University of

North Carolina Press. Print.


This is a thoroughly researched biography of Ella Baker, an incredible contributor and unsung hero of the Black Freedom Movement.  The chapters detailing the work of SNCC are relevant to this curriculum.


Sanchez, Sonia. “Introduction (Queens of the Universe). S.O.S. – Calling All Black

People: A Black Arts Movement Reader. Ed. John Bracey, Sonia Sanchez, James

Smethurst.  University of Massachusetts Press. 2014. 114-20. Print.


This poem reads like a manifesto (or, rather, in the words of my queer and feminist community – “femmifesto”) about Black women’s role in the liberation of her people.  It definitely demonstrates Sonia Sanchez’s form and content.



Ward, Douglas Turner, “American Theater for Whites Only?”  New York Times, 14

August 1966, sect. 2.1. qtd in Playwrights of Color. Ed. Meg Swanson.

Yarmouth, Maine. Intercultural Press.  1999. 3-19. Print.


This op-ed from 1966 was an important piece to be published within a mainstream newspaper, pushing the question of where Black artists and Black art can find a place within American theater.  Note: Turner uses the word “negro,” which places him in a pre-BAM lexicon.





Welch, Rebeccah.  “Spokesman of the Oppressed? Lorraine Hansberry at Work: The

Challenge of Radical Politics in the Postwar Era.”  Souls.  9:4 (2007): 302-319.

Web 14 Feb. 2016.


Rebeccah Welch traces Lorraine Hansberry’s political and artistic contributions, locating her as a proto-BAM artist.



Annotated list of materials for classroom use:


Baraka, Amiri.  Dutchman; and, The Slave: two plays by Leroi Jones. New York:

Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1964. Web 21 Feb 2016.


This is Baraka’s famous play that explores the “temptations” of white middle class America to lure Black intellectuals and artists away from their larger purpose of awoken Black consciousness into a mainstream lifestyle



Hansberry, Lorraine.  A Raisin in the Sun: A Drama in Three Acts.  New York: Random

House, 1959. Print.


This is Hansberry’s famous play that follows the a working class Black family as they make decisions about how to navigate a post-War, segregated Chicago.



Parks, Suzan-Lori.  “New Black Math.”  Theatre Journal, Vol. 57, No. 4, Black

Performance (Dec., 2005). pp. 576-583. Web 1 May 2016.


Part lecture, part performance piece, Parks explores the question: “What is a Black play?”  It is provocative, as Parks is always, and will encourage elicit an array of responses.



Shange, Ntozake. for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is

enuf.  New York: Collier Books, 1977. Print.


This is Shange’s famous work, a choreopoem, that explores the painful and gorgeous positionality of being, in her words, “of color and female in the twentieth century.”





Ward, Douglas Turner. Day of Absence. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1966. qtd

in Playwrights of Color. Ed. Meg Swanson. Yarmouth, Maine. Intercultural

Press.  1999. 20-42. Print.


This is Ward’s satirical view of US race relations, which inverts the format of a minstrel show to place Black actors in “whiteface” and uses comedy to make its points about the interdependence of white and Black communities in the US.


I will use the Common Core Standards for Reading and Writing.  As my students are from 10th and 11th grades, I chose to mix and match from the grades.




Analyze how complex characters develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.



Evaluate how an author’s point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.



Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it, and manipulate time create an effect.




Use narrative techniques such as dialogue, description, reflection, multiple plotlines, and pacing to develop experiences, events, and/or characters; use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, settings, and/or characters.



Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on addressing what is most significant for a specific purpose and audience.