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The Dramaturgy of Writing a Biographical Play

A woman addresses a large crowd.
Photo of Tasia A. Jones and guests at the Stokely: The Unfinished Revolution first rehearsal by Joe Mazza.

Writing a biographical play is no easy feat. How do you even begin to chronicle a lifetime of events of an ordinary person, let alone chronicle the life of a revolutionary presence? And all in two hours or less? As the dramaturg of Stokely: The Unfinished Revolution, a new work, I hope to demystify all the considerations that inform the creation of a biographical play such as this one.

The first major consideration is whether the play is a fictionalized version of a person’s life. Generally speaking, it is difficult for a play about a deceased figure to be completely accurate; there’s simply no way of knowing everything and you’re unable to ask them directly (for obvious reasons!). In Stokely: The Unfinished Revolution, for example, we don’t know what exactly happened in the last moments of Kwame Ture’s life, so the playwright, Nambi E. Kelley, decided to take creative liberties. Even the most interesting people have uninteresting moments in their lives, and a play has to operate differently from reality: dramatic action, pacing, and audience investment have to be taken into account. Creative decisions have to be made, even though they might deviate from history.

The next major considerations are how and how much, referring to structure and biographical information, respectively. Recent plays about historical figures have often been variations of the memory play, a dramatic genre in which the narrator uses non-linear storytelling to participate in the memories they conjure, thereby blurring reality for the audience.

Two smiling women in conversation.
Photo of Martine Kei Green-Rogers and Camille Pugilese by Joe Mazza.

In Toni Stone by Lydia Diamond, Diamond embraces this genre by having Toni Stone, the protagonist, speak directly to the audience about moments in her life before stepping into the world of the play. While Toni Stone portrays some of the biographical figure’s childhood, it primarily focuses on the character’s most active years as a baseball player, and in many ways tells the story of what it was like for Stone to be a woman in a male-dominated athletic field. In memory plays—as we see in Toni Stone—the subjects of these plays are still “alive” and speaking to an audience, recounting their lives for specific reasons. The character of Toni Stone is revealing her world to illustrate why she wants to play baseball, show the barriers to being a woman in sports, and demonstrate how she navigated those challenges, to set an example and inspire others.

Nambi E. Kelley chooses a different tactic in Stokely: The Unfinished Revolution. Here, our subject— Stokely Carmichael, later Kwame Ture —is dying. He is recounting the events of his life to secure his legacy. As such, unlike the previous examples, it is less a memory play about life, and more about the memories that remain when a person dies.

For this reason, we need to return to the aforementioned consideration of how much: How much of one’s life needs to be shared in a biographical play? A play steeped in the memory of a lost life (or life in the process of being lost) has different needs than a play about a life’s accomplishments. Kelley focuses on all of the moments that created the legacy of Kwame Ture and, in some ways, illustrates how fragile and fleeting a legacy can be if not preserved. Focusing on the organizations that Carmichael/Ture helped build, the movements he organized, and the choices he made as a child offers a different perspective on his life than if she had just told his overall biography. Also, dramaturgically speaking, this narrows our dramatic focus, allowing us to tell the story of a person who lived for 57 years without needing 57 years to watch the play!

The last consideration of a biographical play is the most difficult to curate: What do you want an audience to know, what do you want them to take away, after watching the play? While it’s similar to deciding which life events will be shared onstage, this consideration adopts the lens of what best serves the story. Dramaturgs (myself included!) often ask, “Why this play? Why this play now?” The answers can be varied (which points to why there are several plays about one person), but ultimately it all comes down to purpose. Is the purpose of the piece to give you a complete understanding of someone’s life? Is it to fill a knowledge gap? There are many reasons why a playwright may want to focus on a particular aspect of a person’s story and, once you have those answers, you have to stay on track. A playwright must be willing to cut certain parts of a person’s life out of their narrative if they don’t serve the larger purpose of the piece – which can be difficult, especially if the subject’s life is very interesting.

While there is much to consider when writing a biographical play and it’s certainly never easy, these plays provide new perspectives on historical figures. In so doing, they shape our understanding of our past, our present, and our future.

Stokely: The Unfinished Revolution runs May 24 – June 16. Tickets are available online or by calling the Box Office at (773) 753-4472.

Posted on May 8, 2024 in Productions

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