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Reviewed by:
  • Women Writing Plays: Three Decades of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and: Women in American Theatre: Revised and Expanded Third Edition
  • Heather McMahon
Women Writing Plays: Three Decades of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Edited by Alexis Greene. Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Series, no. 13. Austin: U of Texas P, 2006; pp. xv + 302. $29.95 hardcover, $19.95 paper.
Women in American Theatre: Revised and Expanded Third Edition. Edited by Helen Krich Chinoy and Linda Walsh Jenkins. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2006; pp. xxv + 555. $19.95 paper.

The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, established in 1978, recognizes the exemplary work of female playwrights writing for the English-speaking theatre. The stated goal of the prize, "to extend the creative influence of women in the theater, to encourage them to write for the theater, and to recognize excellence in the works of those who do" (Greene ix), echoes the refrain that resonates in two new books about women in theatre. Both Women Writing Plays: Three Decades of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and Women in American Theatre: Revised and Expanded Third Edition suggest that while women working in the theatre have made great strides, they still have a long way to go in order to achieve equality with their male counterparts.

To celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and, more importantly, to illustrate the implications and impacts of the prize, Women Writing Plays offers a collection of scholarly essays, interviews, and memoirs. The result is a highly useful compilation with a global perspective, combining essays by and about contemporary women writers from Britain, the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. While many of these playwrights—like Timberlake Wertenbaker, Marsha Norman, and Pearl Cleage—are probably already familiar to scholars and playgoers, Women Writing Plays also introduces new voices, including Moira Buffini from England, Julia Cho from the United States, and London-based Pakistani playwright Rukhsana Ahmad. What emerges from the essays and interviews is a cross-continental introduction to those women writing for the English-language theatre today, making Women Writing Plays important reading both for feminist scholars and for theatre scholars. Furthermore, the inclusion of a variety of sources, such as scholarly essays, memoirs, interviews, and acceptance speeches by prize recipients, makes the book stand out from earlier works that have broached the topic of female playwrights.

The book begins with an explanation of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, created in honor of an actress, writer, and feminist who proclaimed, before she died of breast cancer, that "I want to matter" (ix). The prize has become an important tool for supporting and publicizing the plays of female playwrights, as Marsha Norman emphasizes in her introduction to the book:

Many women writing for the stage still feel the same way: they want to be working women playwrights, with the emphasis on working, where "working" means produced. To my mind, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize has done more than any other single force or festival to make working a possibility for women playwrights by bringing attention to their plays.


Norman's words are reiterated throughout the book by women such as Cheryl West, Gina Gionfriddo, and Fatima Dike—playwrights who know the importance of both monetary and moral support.

Women Writing Plays raises awareness about these working playwrights, starting with essays by Charlotte Canning and Elizabeth Swain that foreground the relationship between the feminist movements of the 1970s and the burgeoning women's theatre movement of the same time period. From there, the book touches on the impact of playwrights like Beth Henley, Naomi Wallace, Suzan-Lori Parks, Paula Vogel, and Sarah Ruhl. The real strength of the book, however, is that it offers introductions to so many female playwrights from so many different countries—particularly in part 4, "The Expanding World of Women's Plays," which provides glimpses into the lives and works of authors like Fatima Dike of South Africa, Peta Tait of Australia, Jean Betts of New Zealand, and Judith Thompson of Canada. Excellent appendices listing finalists for each year of the prize also provide an important resource for scholars and theatres interested in women...


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