At her oral examination for her master's thesis in literature in 1992, Margaret Edson stood before a panel of Georgetown University professors—and began to rap. To explain her paper about using poetry to teach, "Maggie performed a number by Queen Latifah," says professor Norma Tilden. "There is no way to describe how totally odd and totally wonderful it was."

Edson is still using poetry to teach—but on a New York City stage. Her first play, Wit, a searing drama about a poetry professor battling ovarian cancer, has garnered raves and played to sold-out Off-Broadway audiences for six months. But Edson, 37, hasn't been celebrating: She's too busy with her day job, teaching kindergarten at an Atlanta public school. "Reading and writing is power," says Edson. "I like handing that power over to students."

Edson seems to have been born with it. The middle child of Peter, a newspaper columnist, and Joyce, a medical social worker, she grew up putting on plays in Washington, D.C.—with next-door neighbor (and future Seinfeld star) Julia Louis-Dreyfus. After graduating from Smith College, she worked odd jobs (hot dog vendor, bartender) and spent a year in a Rome convent before finding the inspiration for Wit as a clerk in the AIDS-Oncology unit of a D.C.-area hospital. She finished the play in 1991; "I am sorry to say it is not dated," she says. "There has been little progress with ovarian cancer."

Wit has won praise for treating its subject matter with humor and honesty. "I am immensely grateful to the play," says its star, Kathleen Chalfant, whose brother died of cancer last year. "It helped teach me how to help my brother at the end of his life."

Edson, who has taught since she rapped up her master's, moved to Atlanta last year, where she lives with partner Linda Merrill, an art curator. "I don't know if I'll ever do another play," she says. "If there's something I want to say, then I'll do it. But the thing I'm most proud to be is a teacher."