On Monday, Ayad Akhtar, author of the terrific play "Disgraced," which began life at the American Theater Company in Chicago, won the Pulitzer Prize in drama. He beat out writer Amy Herzog, who was a finalist. Others regarded as likely candidates for the honor were Annie Baker (author, most recently, of "The Flick") and Samuel D. Hunter, author of "The Whale," which blew me away Monday night at the Victory Gardens Theater. Last year, the Pulitzer went to Quiara Alegria Hudes for her play "Water by the Spoonful."
At 42, Akhtar is no kid (although 42 seems young to me). But if you look at those other names — Herzog, Baker, Hunter, Hudes — you can sense a real generational shift in American playwriting. Herzog is 34. Baker is 32. Hudes is 35. Hunter, whom I wrote about last week in this space, is 31. This group makes up the rising stars of American drama. Better yet, they all have a growing presence in Chicago.
Hunter is one of the new affiliated writers at Victory Gardens. Baker has been forging a relationship with A Red Orchid Theatre. Herzog's "4000 Miles" had a reading at Steppenwolf's First Look series in 2010 and her newer play "Belleville" will be staged at Steppenwolf this summer (she also has been a favorite at the Next Theatre in Evanston).
And Hudes? Well, she has been living in Chicago, toddler in tow, for about six weeks, sitting in on rehearsals for the world premiere of her newest play, "The Happiest Song Plays Last," which opens Sunday.
"Happiest Song," which will be directed at the Goodman by Edward Torres, is the last in a trilogy of plays that have really made Hudes' name in theater circles, even if her accountants are more grateful for her writing the book to the hit Broadway musical "In the Heights."
The first drama in the triptych, "Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue" was seen in the Garage at Steppenwolf in 2007 (a Rivendell Theatre Company production). "Water by the Spoonful," the second play and the one that won the Pulitzer, will be produced at Court Theatre in 2014.
All three of those plays are loosely based on the experiences of Hudes' second cousin, Elliot Ruiz, a veteran of the Iraq War who now lives in California, where the Marine has become an actor. Taken together, the plays cover the run-up to the war, its execution, its immediate aftermath and its echoes over a longer term on the American psyche, as seen through the experience of one soldier.
Over lunch the other day, Hudes and I spent a long time talking about those other writers, all of whom she admires, as we did her own work. But once "Happiest Song" opens, she is planning on touching up the three "Elliot" plays so that they can be done as a true trilogy and maybe staged on the same day.
Right now, Chicago fans of her work will be seeing the last part before the second part, but that's mostly a function of the way they have been developed. "Happiest Song" came out of an open Goodman commission: It was going to be a separate play until, when she sat down to write, Hudes decided that this was to be the final part of her trilogy. That said, she explained, each play was written to stand alone.
Hudes talked some about the complexity of basing a play on the life of a relative: her cousin has, she said, come to readings and performances and generally likes the experience, although she has explained to other family members that they should know that much in the dramas is fictional. "There has been a learning curve," she said.
I asked Hudes where she thought her career was going. She waved off TV and the like.
"I want to spend my life doing exactly what I am doing," she said. "I love waking up in the morning and writing plays."
May that be true of all these writers.
'The Happiest Song Plays Last'
When: Through May 12
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Tickets: $10-$40; 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org