5 Contemporary Playwrights You Should Know About Right Now

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Photo Source: Cole Escola and Bianca Leigh in “Oh, Mary!” Credit: Emilio Madrid

We all cherish our volumes of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, August Wilson, and Wendy Wasserstein. Their brilliant works, though deeply rooted in their eras, continue to surprise us in new ways.

With the reveal of the 2024 Tony Award nominees, we’re seeing an influx of up-and-coming Broadway talents who are truly making their mark on the theater world. First-time nods went to sought-after playwrights Jocelyn Bioh (“Jaja’s African Hair Braiding”), David Adjmi (“Stereophonic”), Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (“Appropriate”), and Joshua Harmon (“Prayer For the French Republic”).

Here are five exciting playwrights enjoying an iron-couldn’t-be-hotter moment whose names are certain to come out of the lips of Tony nominators in the years to follow.

Eboni Booth

This Juilliard grad also doubles as an actor from time to time, having performed in works like Clare Barron’s “Dance Nation” and Zoe Kazan’s “After the Blast.” Her 2023 Off-Broadway play “Primary Trust” was a riveting vehicle for “The Good Place” star William Jackson Harper (a Tony nominee this year for his acclaimed work in the Lincoln Center revival of “Uncle Vanya”).

Considering “Primary Trust” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama earlier this month, Booth’s name is sure to stay fresh in the minds of theater fans everywhere. The play has been getting productions all over the country, and for good reason: It’s the taut 95-minute tale of a man starting his life over in the wake of professional and emotional setbacks (with a notable coup de théâtre that we won’t spoil here), composed gracefully and empathetically.

John J. Caswell Jr.

Caswell has exploded onto the Off-Broadway scene in the last few years with plays like “Wet Brain,” a pitch-black comedy about addiction (and maybe even aliens); and “Scene Partners,” in which a 75-year-old dreamer leaves it all behind to become a movie star. Big names like two-time Oscar winner Dianne Wiest, Frankie J. Alvarez, Josh Hamilton, and Johanna Day have all worked with the young author. Caswell takes a playful, unconventional approach to form; he’s a wicked political satirist, and, as a designer, a precise graphic artist. But his works never put audiences at a distance. Instead, they crackle with a nervy, emotional energy all their own.

Cole Escola

This “Difficult People” and “Search Party” actor slayed audiences this year with their play “Oh, Mary!” which reimagines the life of first lady Mary Todd Lincoln—so much so that luminaries such as Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner, and Sally Field (who all know a thing or two about the Lincolns) made a pilgrimage to the West Village to see it. The show created an instant stir in an era when that’s rare in the Off-Broadway landscape.

Now, the show is transferring to the Great White Way, with previews set to begin on June 26. The success of “Oh, Mary!” is thanks not only to Escola’s cheeky, wide-ranging portrayal of the first lady, but also to their gifts as a writer. They’ve transformed the story of a well-known historical figure into something rich and multifaceted, if petulant and absurd. The result is a delightful mélange of hard facts and hard camp; it’s a richly rewarding experience for fans of both. 

Max Wolf Friedlich

This Manhattan-bred playwright is on the cusp of 30—and on the cusp of Broadway success. His oft-extended “Job” (which featured “Succession” star Peter Friedman and up-and-comer Sydney Lemmon) is a tense narrative in the vein of Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth” and David Harrower’s “Blackbird.” It centers on a young woman who, following a mental breakdown, seeks approval from her therapist to return to work. The play wowed audiences with its hairpin turns. The Main Stem may soon come calling; according to the New York Times, the acidic two-hander is looking to make a Broadway transfer. Friedlich is revitalizing the idea of the “intimate downtown sensation,” a type of theater that, save for the examples on this list, is in incredibly short supply these days. “Job” speaks exactly to the way we live now, making it not only prescient but provocative.

Hansol Jung

Jung is an assertive queer voice on the contemporary theater scene. (It’s not for nothing that three of her works made the Kilroys List, which highlights groundbreaking female and trans stories.) Her boldly original “Wolf Play,” the free-associative tale of an adopted Korean boy being rehomed, swept the 2023 Lucille Lortel Awards, winning five trophies—including best play. Among Jung’s other notable works are historical drama “Among the Dead” and queer sex comedy “Merry Me.” She’s also a member of NYC’s beloved Asian American artists’ collective the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, and she’s translated more than 30 English-language musicals into Korean.

And it’s only the beginning for this flourishing talent, who already has writing credits on major TV series like Netflix’s “Tales of the City” and Apple TV+’s “Pachinko.” The prestige projects are continuing to come fast and furious; next up, she’s adapting C. Pam Zhang’s Booker Prize–longlisted “How Much of These Hills Is Gold” for the small screen. So be sure to catch Jung’s marvelously unique stage works (whenever some lucky theater company gets the chance to produce one) before Hollywood whisks her away.

This story originally appeared in the May 16 issue of Backstage Magazine.

Jason Clark
Jason Clark (he/him) has over 25 years in the entertainment and media industry covering film, television, and theater. He comes to Backstage from TheWrap, where he’s worked as an awards reporter since 2021. He also has bylines in Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, Vulture, the Village Voice, AllMovie, and Slant Magazine, among many others. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in cinema studies from New York University.
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