Historical Comedies to Moral Odysseys: The Work of George Brant

George Brant began his career as an actor. After graduating from Northwestern University, Brant found he wasn’t landing the kind of roles he wanted to play and shifted to writing roles for himself. He started writing about historical oddities and later, the sort of complicated, morally conflicted characters found in his plays Grounded and Tender Age.

Brant’s early work was largely comedic, sometimes parodying popular entertainments other times adapting literary classics with a light touch. Early plays, with titles like The Royal Historian of Oz and Borglum! The Mount Rushmore Musical, were witty forays into the lives of famous but misunderstood historical figures such as Frank A. Baum and Gutzon Borglum. Brant continues to take inspiration from real-life figures from the past; one recent play was Into The Breeches!, a story about an all-female version of Henry V produced during World War II. Into The Breeches! was commissioned by Trinity Rep and has been produced at Asolo Rep, Cleveland Play House, and other theatres nationwide.

Marie and Rosetta, which premiered at Atlantic Theater Company in 2016, is the story of singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe as she rehearses with Marie Knight, her young protégée who would soon join her to tour as one of the most influential musical duos in history. Also significant in Brant’s playwriting repertoire is Elephant Graveyard, the true tale of the tragic collision between a struggling circus and a tiny town in Tennessee, which resulted in the public hanging of an elephant. Elephant Graveyard was developed at The Kennedy Center and other theatres around the country, premiered at The University of Texas at Austin in 2007, and has since been produced globally over 350 times.

Grounded, a play about an unexpected pregnancy that ends a fighter pilot’s career in the sky and moves her assignment to operating military drones in a trailer outside Las Vegas, premiered in 2013 and was produced at Studio in 2014. Grounded has received over 150 productions in 19 different countries and has been translated into 14 languages. The Metropolitan Opera has commissioned an opera adaptation and Anne Hathaway is producing a feature film of the play, planning to reprise the role she played at The Public Theater in 2015. Tender Age, which was developed at the National Playwrights’ Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center in the summer of 2019, explores similar themes to Grounded, with a guard at a children's detention center near the Southern border fighting between his need for a steady income and the moral misgivings he has with his job.

“I thought a guard might be someone who could be the eyes for us,” Brant said of the character Martín, the protagonist of Tender Age who allows audiences an intimate look at the human costs of the refugee crisis at the border. Much of the play delves into divisions within the American Latinx community, with Martín espousing a conservative view of immigration that is shared by some other American Latinos.

Brant’s plays have received a Lucille Lortel Award, an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, the Smith Prize, a Fringe First Award, an Off West End Theatre Award, an National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, four Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards and the Keene Prize for Literature. His commitment to writing the most pressing dilemmas of the modern day and investigating historical quirks has given him a unique perspective on the human psyche and the way we negotiate ethical dilemmas.

Annabel Heacock