Critics Praise Three American Playwrights

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara Klein.

And I'm Steve Ember. This week we tell about three American writers whose fresh and imaginative plays are receiving great critical praise. Sarah Ruhl, Neil LaBute and Suzan-Lori Parks have very different histories and styles. But all three are adding great energy and creativity to the American theater.


At the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C. Sarah Ruhl's new play "Dead Man's Cell Phone" has been a big success this summer. The play is both funny and serious.  It deals with death, family, and, well, cell phones.  It tells the story of a lonely young woman named Jean. The play starts at a restaurant where Jean is eating and reading quietly. The cell phone of the man at the next  table starts to ring.


Then it rings again.


The cell phone keeps ringing and starts to interfere with her reading. Finally, Jean stands up to ask the man to answer his phone. But she discovers that he has died.

Jean (talking on his phone):

"I think that there is a dead man sitting next to me.


I don't know how he died. I'm at a café."

Jean keeps the dead man's cell phone and gets involved in his life. She answers the phone when his friends, family and business contacts call him. She meets some very unusual people.

Sarah Ruhl studied to be a playwright at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Her teacher was the well-known American playwright Paula Vogel. At first, Ms. Ruhl studied poetry, but Paula Vogel influenced her to study theater. Sarah Ruhl knew theater well. She grew up going to play rehearsals in Chicago, Illinois with her mother who was an actress.

Sarah Ruhl is only thirty-three years old, but she has already had extraordinary success. Her play "The Clean House" was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in two thousand five.  The next year she won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship for her work. This organization gives five hundred thousand dollars to people in the arts and sciences who show great skill and creativity in their work.

"The Clean House" is also very funny as well as serious. It tells about a controlling doctor named Lane who employs a Brazilian woman to clean her house. But Matilde does not like to clean. She says if the floor is dirty then one should look up at the ceiling because it is always clean.

Lane has a sister named Virginia who is lonely. Her favorite activity is cleaning. Virginia thinks it is an honor to clean your own house. She loves dust. She says dust always makes progress. Then when she removes the dust she knows  she  has made progress.

Virginia secretly goes to Lane's house and cleans all day while Matilde does her own favorite activity, creating jokes. The order of Lane's life further falls apart when her husband, also a doctor, falls in love with a patient. In the end, this play is about loving and learning to help and forgive others.

Sarah Ruhl has another new play being performed in New York City called "Eurydice".  The play re-imagines an ancient Greek story with modern characters and visual effects.  Eurydice dies on her wedding day.  She must travel through the underworld and struggle to retain the memories of her lost love, Orpheus.  Critics have  praised the play. They say it provides a fresh look at a timeless love story. 


Neil LaBute studied theater at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He writes plays as well as movies that test the fine line between good and bad actions. His stories can be painfully honest in their examination of human relationships. Mr. LaBute has said that a good relationship between people equals a bad story. He thinks that the common building material for a play is conflict. And he says his job is to look for ways to ruin a perfectly good day for people.

A good example of a LaBute play is "The Shape of Things." It was first performed in London in two thousand one. It tells about two university students, Adam and Evelyn. Adam is a museum guard who meets Evelyn while she is trying to ruin a piece of art to express her radical ideas. They soon fall in love. But Adam's friends Phil and Jenny notice that something is not right about Adam and Evelyn. Evelyn slowly starts to change Adam's physical and mental qualities. By the end of the play he is a completely new person. Then Evelyn reveals the  terrible secret about her plan for Adam.

After London, the play was performed in New York City. Neil LaBute later directed and produced a movie version of "The Shape of Things."  Here is Evelyn talking with Jenny about her studies:

Evelyn: So everything is good?

Jenny: Yeah, you know, OK. You?

Evelyn: Pretty great actually. Just studyingвА¶working on my art.

Jenny: Right., YouвАШve got that big thing that you are doing.

Evelyn: Thesis project, for my degree.

Jenny: And it's going well?

Evelyn: Yeah.

Jenny: What was it again?

Evelyn: I never said.

Jenny: Oh, well that's why.

Evelyn: Right. It's this sculpture thingie.

Jenny: Nice.  I think what you have done with Adam it's really great.

Evelyn: What I have done?

Jenny: Just, you know, he's changed.

Evelyn: That's right HE's changed.

Jenny: Of course, I didn't mean that youвА¶

  Evelyn: I know, I am just saying, you know, he did the work.

Jenny: Right.

Another LaBute play is called "Fat Pig."  It tells about the relationship between Helen and Tom. Tom loves Helen but his friends criticize her because she is very overweight. His concern about other people's opinions of Helen's appearance finally ruins his relationship with her. The play is fiercely honest and at times upsetting.  Neil LaBute's plays are among the most emotionally demanding and morally shocking in current theater.


Suzan-Lori Parks started writing while studying at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. She first studied chemistry, then later changed to English and German literature. She said she started to hear voices in her head that led her to write down what they were saying. Suzan-Lori Parks read one of her stories in a class taught by the famous fiction  writer James Baldwin. He asked her if she had ever considered writing for the theater.

The plays of Suzan-Lori Parks usually deal with black culture, American history and family relations.  Her nineteen ninety-nine play, "In the Blood," is a modern version of the nineteenth century novel "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The play tells about a homeless woman named Hester as she cares for her five children. It gives an intense and honest vision of motherhood, poverty and suffering.

Ms. Parks does not limit herself to writing plays. In two thousand three she wrote the book "Getting Mother's Body." She has also written screenplays for movies, including "Girl 6" directed by Spike Lee.

In two thousand one, Ms. Parks won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. The next year she won the Pulitzer Prize for her play "Topdog/Underdog."  She became the first black woman to receive the award.

"Topdog/Underdog" tells the story of two African-American brothers, Lincoln and Booth. Lincoln works at a game center as a target for a shooting game. To be the target, he dresses up like President Abraham Lincoln. His brother Booth plays card games to win money. Their parents left the brothers when they were young children and they have depended on each other to survive.  The play is a striking exploration of the many emotions and tense competition between the two men.

Ms. Parks recently put into action one of her largest projects yet. In two thousand two, she decided to write one play a day for a year. The published collection of these plays is called "365 Days/365 Plays." Here are the first few lines of "2- For-1" performed by the American Theater Company of Chicago.


Writer: "Is the rule that I have to keep writing until I think of a play?"

Editor: "There are no rules."

Writer: "What if my mind is blank?"

From November thirteenth of last year until  November twelfth of this year, these plays are being performed every day all over America. More than seven hundred colleges, performance organizations and theater groups are performing the works.  One goal of the project is to bring together a worldwide theater community. For more on this special event, visit


Our program was written and produced by Dana Demange.  Transcripts and archives of our shows are at  I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.