Cheryl L. West

Playwright Biography

Cheryl L. West was born in Chicago in 1965. She holds three academic degrees, one of which is from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Prior to her work as a playwright, she was a teacher and social worker. She is the recipient of several awards such as the Charlotte B. Chorpenning Playwright Award (2016) honoring the canon of work she has created, the American Alliance For Theatre & Education Distinguished Play Award (2016- Akeelah and the Bee), and the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.

Highlighted Play: Holiday Heart

Synopsis: Niki Dean has a family with her mother, Wanda Dean, and Holiday Heart, the drag queen across the hall. In the course of a year, everything changes. Her mother falls in love with a drug dealer named Silas who separates Niki and Wanda from Holiday. When Wanda returns to her drug addiction, Niki moves in with Holiday who conceals Wanda’s situation. Silas and Holiday work together to provide a stable environment for Niki but rumors spread and she goes looking for her mother and discovers the truth creating discord in the house. Holiday tries to bring Wanda home but in her paranoia Wanda kills Holiday, leaving Niki alone.

How this play can be used: This play can be used in a variety of contexts. It would be a great addition to a professional company’s season. It also could be part of a course that examines the portrayal of queer characters in live theatre as it was groundbreaking for its positive portrayal of Holiday’s care for Niki. A high school class could also examine this play as part of their drama or English courses.

Suggested Activity: Participants brainstorm the qualities and actions of a good mother. While reading the play or as a culminating activity, participants compare and contrast which of the characters in the play is most like the exemplar we created together. Participants could then participate in a Spectrum of Difference, where they place themselves on an invisible line across the room denoting how they feel about the statements being read while there are opportunities to explain reasoning. Statements could include "People can't change." and "Choosing your family tells more about who you are then the family you are born into."

Discussion Questions:

What types of language do we use to describe people? Language that focuses on their assets or language that focuses on deficits, what they lack?

What, if any, responsibility does West have to answer to what she calls the “positive police’s” concerns about her work? Does her more recent work as a Theatre for Young Audiences playwright change the answer?

Is it each playwright’s responsibility to write a broad range of types of characters into existence or can they rely on the collective to ensure representation?

Other Plays

Play On!

Synopsis: A musical adaption of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night using the music of Duke Ellington. Set in 1940s, Vy moves to Harlem to be a writer for the famous Duke but because of sexism has to be in disguise as a man. The Duke is in love with Lady Liv and sends Vy to the Cotton Club to sing one of her songs claiming the Duke wrote it for Lady Liv. Meanwhile at the Cotton Club, some of the performers hate the manager Rev who is also in love with Lady Liv so they convince him to make a fool of himself in her name. Unrequited love and hilarity ensue as with Shakespeare’s play.

How this play can be used: Provided you have the right students, this could be a great school musical. Seeing the musical could be the introductory or culminating piece of a unit studying Twelfth Night. It also could be part of a unit on theatrical adaptations. It could be used to explore the historical and interpersonal aspects of the Harlem Renaissance. In a music class, you could explore Duke Ellington and different types of music comparing and contrasting the Rev with the other performers.

Akeelah and the Bee

Synopsis: Based on the 2006 movie by the same name, this play follows Akeelah, an 11 yr old girl who has just lost her father who taught her to love spelling, as she makes her way to the National Spelling Bee with the help of Dr. Larabe.

How this play can be used: This play examines success and how to achieve it even when faced with seemingly overwhelming odds. Violence and class disparity are addressed throughout the play. There are opportunities to discuss bullying, stereotype, and prejudice with students. This play may even be appropriate for middle and high schools to perform depending of context. There is a large and diverse cast but there is also suggested doubling from the playwright in case you have a smaller program.

Comprehensive List of Plays


1988 Before It Hits Home

1993 Puddin 'n' Pete

1994 Holiday Heart

1997 Play On!

1997 Jar the Floor

2005 Birdie Blue

2007 Addy: An American Girl Story*

2011 Motherhood Out Loud

2012 Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy*

2012 Pullman Porter Blues

2014 Mwindo*

2015 Akeelah and the Bee*

(* indicates script is marketed as TYA)


2000 Holiday Heart

2001 Glitter

2009 11 Diary of a Single Mom

2012 In the Hive

2013 Playin’ for Love


"Artist Bio: Cheryl L. West." Goodman Theatre, Mar. 2013,

Bennett, Suzanne, and Jane T. Peterson. Women Playwrights of Diversity: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook. Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1997. Google Books,

Berson, Misha. "Cheryl West: Tough Love." American Theatre, vol. 29, no. 7, Sept. 2012, pp. 39-44. International Bibliography of Theatre & Dance with Full Text,

---. "HITTING HARD, HITTING HOME - `HOLIDAY HEART' OFFERS A TOUGH, TRAGIC VIEW OF BLACKS IN AMERICA." The Seattle Times, Final ed., 15 Apr. 1994, Tempo sec., p. D24. Access World News,

---. "`HOLIDAY HEART' PUMPS LIFE INTO THE HUMAN CONDITION." The Seattle Times, Final ed., 21 Apr. 1994, Arts, Entertainment sec., p. E8. Access World News,

Brantley, Ben. "THEATER REVIEW; A 'Pseudo-Woman' Becomes a Mother." The New York Times, 22 Feb. 1995, Theater sec.,

"Cheryl L. West." IMDb,

Children's Theatre Company. "Peter C. Brosius, Cheryl L. West, and Akeelah and the Bee win American Alliance for Theatre and Education Awards." Children's Theatre Company,

Dauphin, Gary. "Cheryl L. West: Controversial Playwright." Essence, vol. 25, no. 1, May 1994, p. 60. EBSCO,

DeMar, David P., Jr. "CHERYL WEST'S 'HOLIDAY HEART' HAS WORLD PREMIERE FRIDAY." Watertown Daily Times [New York], St. Lawrence ed., 2 Jan. 1994, Entertainment sec., p. C1. EBSCO Discovery,

Doollee, editor. "Cheryl L. West." Doollee: The Playwrights Database, 2003,

Evett, Marianne. "`HOLIDAY HEART' A MOST UNUSUAL FAMILY DRAMA." The Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH], Final ed., 27 Feb. 1994, Arts & Living sec., p. 1L. Access World News,

Greene, Marcia Slacum. "ARENA'S HEAVY 'HEART'; Post-Show Forums Hit Home With Audiences." The Washington Post, Final ed., 5 Nov. 1995, Sunday Arts sec., p. G04. LexisNexis Academic,

Pineda-Hernández, Inmaculada. "Survival Strategies in Recent Plays by African American Women Playwrights." Performing Gender Violence. Springer Link,*~hmac=653e621343bc9a54e1ed6c4378cf0d2007686f5142b574895d886e253e62fcf6.

Playwright: Cheryl L. West. Plays for Young Audiences,

Pressley, Nelson. "Poignant, powerful `Holiday Heart' - A tale of one child's search for a family." The Washington Times [Washington D.C.], 2nd ed., 6 Oct. 1995, METROPOLITAN TIMES ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT THEATER sec., p. C15. Access World News,

Richardson, Matt. The Queer Limit of Black Memory. Ohio State University Press. Project Muse, Ohio State University Press,

Schmidt, Gary D. Lizzie Bright and the Buckminister Boy. Clarion Books, 2004. Google Books,

Tauman, Beatrix. "Strange Orphans' Contemporary African American Women Playwrights. Germany, Konigshausen & Neumann, 1999. Google Scholar,

Waters, Billye Sankofa. "Who Says What About Black Women." We Can Speak For Ourselves: Parent Involvement and Ideologies of Black Mothers in Chicago, Springer, 2016, pp. 17-27. Springer Link,

West, Cheryl L. Holiday Heart. Electronic ed., 1994. Black Drama, Accessed 22 Mar. 2017.

---. "Offscript: Cheryl L. West’s Spelling Lesson." Interview by Rob Weinert-Kendt et al. American Theatre, 4 Dec. 2005,

Web page compiled by Rebecca Brown (2017)