10 contemporary playwrights you should know

Throughout history, playwrights have used their gifts to highlight social movements, push boundaries and examine common themes of human nature. While many minds immediately think of William Shakespeare when hearing the term ‘playwright,’ contemporary playwrights have been a strong driving force in the discussion of important topics like race, gender, ability and sexuality by exploring them through a critical and dramatized lens.

Drama faculty Cliff Odle and Drama Dean Scott Zigler take us through ten of the most notable contemporary playwrights and what we should know about them. While the term ‘contemporary’ can technically include anything written since the 1950s, this list focuses on writers who have produced works within the last ten years. In fact, Zigler considers this to be the "Golden Age of playwriting."

Playwrights on the list are listed in alphabetical order by last name:

Jackie Sibblies Drury

A winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her play “Fairview,” Zigler says that Drury is “known for writing in a very pointed manner about the issue of race in America.” Also known for writing “Really” and “Social Creatures,” Drury is the winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the Steinberg Playwright Award. Zigler adds that Drury’s work “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915” was produced as a Keys to the Kingdom workshop piece in 2018 and he considers it to be the most powerful piece of work created on the campus that year.

Author’s note: The Keys to the Kingdom program in the School of Drama allows graduating students the opportunity to produce, act in and direct a play of their choosing.


Jackie Sibblies Drury's Pulitzer prize-winning work "Fairview" is about the surveillance of Black people in America. / Photo: Julieta Cervantes and Soho Rep

Stephen Adly Guirgis

Zigler lists Guirgis as an important figure in contemporary playwriting whose works have been produced all over the world. Guirgis’ most recent Pulitzer prize-winning play, “Between Riverside and Crazy,” included Drama alumnus Stephen McKinley Henderson in the starring role of "Walter 'Pops' Washington" for which he won the 2015 Obie Award for Best Actor. Other well known plays include “Jesus Hopped the A Train'' and “The Little Flower of East Orange.” The School of Drama presented Guirgis’ “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” directed by Quin Gordon, in the fall of 2016. His work “Our Lady of 121st Street,” directed by Carl Forsman, was part of the 2020-21 performance season.

Author’s note: Cliff Odle will be performing the role of Walter "Pops" Washington in Stephen Adly Guirgis' "Between Riverside and Crazy" at the GAMM Theater in Rhode Island in February 2025.

Tim J. Lord's "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" was performed by students in the class of 2018 from the School of Drama in the Fall of 2016

Stephen Adley Guirgis' "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" was performed by the School of Drama in Fall 2016 / Photo: Peter J. Mueller

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Born in Washington D.C., Brandon Jacob-Jenkins came to prominence with his Obie Award-winning play “An Octoroon,” based on 19th Century Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s play “The Octoroon.” His play "Appropriate" has also won an Obie and in 2024 was nominated for several Tony Awards. Jacobs-Jenkins’ work has been described as “fiercely intelligent, ambitious and boldy theatrical” and tackles the difficult issues of race, class, and personal ambition in a way that challenges the audience as much as they entertain. 

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' "Appropriate," directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg

Natalie Bright and Jess Andrews in South Coast Repertory's 2023 Voices of America production of "Appropriate" by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins / Photo: Jenny Graham

Young Jean Lee

Lee is best known for her work “Straight White Men'' which led to her becoming the first female identifying playwright of Asian descent to ever have a play on Broadway. Also known for the works “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven” and “Untitled Feminist Show,” Lee writes extensively about viewing America through the immigrant experience, using her own background as a Korean immigrant for inspiration.

Young Jean Lee

Young Jean Lee drew inspiration from her background as a Korean immigrant for her work “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven.” / Photo: Young Jean Lee

Tim J. Lord 

A recipient of the inaugural Apothetae-Lark Fellowship for a writer with a disability, Zigler lists Lord as a playwright who has focused on questions surrounding ability and ableism in his work. “Differently abled individuals are often neglected in the conversations on equity and inclusion in the theater community,” notes Zigler. Lord’s works include “On Every Link a Heart Does Dangle; or Owed,” “The Hard Price” and “We Declare You a Terrorist.” The School of Drama 2020-21 season production of Lord’s “Down in the face of God,” directed by faculty member Cameron Knight, was livestreamed as part of Contemporary Voices: A Virtual Theater Festival. 

Down in the face of God

The School of Drama's performance of "Down in the face of God" by Tim J. Lord was part of the 2020-21 performance season.

Tarell Alvin McCraney

McCraney is most widely known for writing the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” which was adapted into the 2016 film “Moonlight” and led to him winning the 2016 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay along with screenwriter Barry Jenkins. A member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble, McCraney has won both the Windham–Campbell Literature Prize and the MacArthur Fellowship. Other notable works by McCraney include “The Brother Sister Plays” trilogy and “Choir Boy.”   

choir boy

Tarell Alvin McCraney's "Choir Boy" earned a special Tony Award for Outstanding Arrangements / Photo: Matthew Murphy and Manhattan Theatre Club

Robert O'Hara

Zigler lists O’Hara as another playwright who focuses on the intersectionality of the queer and black experiences, having written several plays including “Bootycandy,” “Antebellum” and “Barbecue” which Zigler calls, “very pointed studies of identity in America.” O’Hara is also known as an accomplished director and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for Harris’ “Slave Play.” Other accolades include a 2010 Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding New Play and 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Best LGBT Drama. 


The UNCSA production of Robert O'Hara's "Barbecue," directed by Cliff Odle / Photo: Wayne Reich

Tanya Saracho

Tanya Saracho is a Mexican-American playwright, actress and screenwriter. Upon moving to Chicago after her college graduation, she found opportunities for Latinx actress limited to stereotypes such as maids and sex workers. In response, Saracho co-founded Teatro Luna with Coya Paz. She also co-founded Alliance of Latinx Theater Artists in Chicago. After focusing on playwrighting, she created works such as a reconstruction of Chechov’s “The Cherry Orchard” set in the pecan orchards of Northern Mexico, which ran at the Goodman Theatre and “Song for the Disappeared” about an estranged borderland family and the disappearance of their younger brother. In the world of television, she was the showrunner for the 2019 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comedy “Vida,” a writer and co-producer for “How to Get Away With Murder,” and staff writer for “Devious Maids” and “Looking.” Her work continues to center the queer and Latinx communities.

Tanya Saracho's "Song for the Disappeared" at the Goodman Theaer in 2012

Tanya Saracho's "Song for the Disappeared" at the Goodman Theaer in 2012 / Photo: Ojalá Productions

Alexis Scheer

Alexis Scheer made a splash with her breakout off-Broadway hit “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord.” The play, about high school fan girls of deceased Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar, was a New York Times Critics pick and a John Gassner Award-winner. She recently made her Broadway debut adapting Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Bad Cinderella.” Other plays include her latest, “Breaking the Story,” which will premiere off-Broadway at Second Stage, “Laughs in Spanish” (Kennedy Center’s Steinberg Award), and “Christina” (Roe Green Award and O’Neill Finalist). She also has work in television writing “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin” (HBO/MAX) and has projects in the works for Ventanarosa (Salma Haye’s production company with HBO/MAX) and Sony/Netflix. Her work, which often has more than a hint of magical realism, often reflexs her upbringing in a Jewish-Columbian household. She holds a B.F.A. in Musical Theatre from The Boston Conservatory and an M.F.A. from Boston University.

Zoetic Stage's "Our Dear Dead Drug Lord" by Alexis Scheer at the Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theater

Zoetic Stage's "Our Dear Dead Drug Lord" by Alexis Scheer at the Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theater / Photo: Justin Namon

Caridad Svich

Rounding out the list, Zigler includes Svich calling her “a very active voice in the theater community serving as one of the backbones of multicultural theater and the recent move towards a more inclusive theatrical landscape.” Svich has won numerous awards for her works including the 2012 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award for “Guapa” and the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her play “The House of the Spirits.” She received an OBIE Award for Lifetime Achievement in the theatre. She is also co-organizer and curator of After Orlando theatre action in response to the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting.


Caridad Svich's "Guapa" earned her the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. / Photo: Borderlands Theater

by Melissa Upton-Julio & Sasha Hartzell

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Originally published March 02, 2021; Updated June 6, 2024