To be a ‘city of literature’ don’t forget playwrights

Kentucky native George C. Wolfe’s “Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” ran for 100 performances.
Kentucky native George C. Wolfe’s “Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” ran for 100 performances. Playbill.com

It is terrific that Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, Neil Chethik of the Carneige Center for Literacy and Learning, writer Jane Moore Waldrop and others are seeking to have the city declared a “City of Literature” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

So far 116 cities in 54 countries have received this designation for excellence in crafts and either folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, music or media arts. But let me ask: Is it possible to have such a city without playwrights?

The article listed great writers produced by Lexington and Kentucky, none of whom were or are known as playwrights.

Yes, Frank X Walker, Crystal Wilkinson, Silas House, William Wells Brown, Robert Penn Warren, James Still, Barbara Kingsolver, Wendell Berry and Bobbie Ann Mason are talented writers; and House, Berry and Walker have all written plays.

But Marsha Norman, John Patrick and Suzan-Lori Parks — all of whom have won the Pulitzer Prize for drama — are also talented writers. So, too, is George C. Wolfe, a playwright, producer, director and screenwriter from Frankfort.

Charles Edward Pogue is a University of Kentucky theatre graduate, who, though better known for his screenplays “The Fly” or “DOA” than any of his plays, has had plays such as his adaptation of “Tartuffe” and his original play (co-written with Larry Drake) “Whodunnit Darling?” produced, in state and out, since he moved to Georgetown a few years ago.

Bo List’s adaptation of “Frankenstein” has been produced coast to coast. List’s newest play, commissioned by Kentucky Playwrights Workshop, “I Left My Heart in Kissimmee,” recently had a reading at StageBox Theatre and will be produced in June by Bluegrass Community and Technical College, along with new plays by fellow Kentucky playwrights George McGee and Jim Inman.

Carl Gabriel Trammel’s “Love, Lust and the Middle Ground” will premiere in June at StageBox. At the Lyric, Robby Henson’s play “Good Blues Tonight” recently had three performances. Other local playwrights who’ve had plays at the Lyric include Lacresha Berry, “Browngirl Bluegrass,” 2015 and “Tubman,” 2017 and poet Frank X Walker, “I Dedicate This Ride,” in 2015.

Other area playwrights include Margaret Price, Stephen Currens, Herman Farrell III, Nancy Jones, Margo Buchanan, Richard Cavendish, Elizabeth Orendorff, Ross Carter, Tommy Jones, Jonathan Hibbard and Carson Hardee. Plays by students at Transylvania have recently been accepted for publication by Dramatic Publishing and there are new student works produced at the University of Kentucky.

Since 1896, 12 Kentuckians have had 51 plays produced on Broadway, including three in 2016:

▪  “Chicago: The Musical,” based on Louisville native Maurine Dallas Watkins’ satiric play of the same name.

▪ Marsha Norman’s musical (book) “The Color Purple,” which closed in January after a run of 450 performances.

▪ George C. Wolfe’s “Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” which ran for 100 performances.

Last year, Off-Broadway’s Signature Theatre produced plays by Suzan-Lori Parks anf had 17 plays by Kentucky playwrights, including 10 by Phil Paradis of Fort Thomas and three by Lexington playwrights Blake Sugarman, Lacresha Berry and Leah Nanko Winkler.

It’s great that Lexington might be declared a city of literature. But the chances of the city’s being declared such would seem to be improved if the city’s and state’s many playwrights were mentioned in support of that worthy cause.

William H. McCann Jr. of Corinth is a playwright, producer and editor. He is currently editing a collection of plays by prisoners at Northpoint Training Center in Burgin, part of the prison outreach program of Pioneer Playhouse in Danville.