By PAM HARBAUGH
Here’s this year’s batch of plays which will probably draw attention on our national stages: the six finalists for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. This award recognizes the best plays which had their professional premiere outside of New York City during 2015.
These six were decided after reading more than two dozen plays which had been nominated by ATCA members. After a long process, which included a lot of “lively” e-mail discussions among nearly as many critics (all with varying opinions), these six became finalists. From those, three will receive cash awards: $25 for the top award of best new play and two $7,500 citations to the runners up. The awards are handed out during a ceremony in the final industry weekend at the Humana Festival of New American Plays held annual at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.
This year’s finalists, listed alphabetically by playwright’s name, are:
“CLARKSTON” by Samuel D. Hunter
“VIETGONE” by Qui Nguyen
“MISSISSIPPI GODDAM” by Jonathan Norton
“SWEAT” by Lynn Nottage
“THE DANGEROUS HOUSE OF PRETTY MBANE” by Jen Silverman.
Here is what our fearless leader, William Hirschman (ATCA chair and lead theater critic at FloridaTheaterOnStage.com) wrote about each of the plays:
Steven Dietz, Bloomsday – “Tender, beautiful, and heartbreaking,” said one panelist about Dietz’s tale of four—well, actually two—characters meeting on the streets of Dublin. A brief encounter between Cathleen, a guide on a tour of locations from James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Robbie, an American who never read the book, is complicated and enhanced by visits from their 35-years-later selves. Yes, we’ve all seen what-might-have-been stories on stage, but in the words of other panelists, this “artful and elegant,” “lovely and thoughtful” play with its “slightly supernatural sparkle” had an ending that’s “a genuine epiphany.” “Bloomsday” received its world premiere at ACT Theatre in Seattle.
Samuel D. Hunter, Clarkston – “Deftly entwining a love story with a classic tale,” according to one panelist, “Clarkston,” set in a nondescript town in eastern Washington, “expresses the sorrows and yearnings of working class people who have heavy burdens and few options.” It’s about the bridging of a divide between a pair of Costco employees, one seriously ill. Although one is a distant relationship of Meriwether Lewis, these two are on very different journeys of discovery in this story that is “told simply with no razzmatazz, just quiet power and characters you care about,” a panelist commented. “Clarkston” had its world premiere at Dallas Theater Center.
Qui Nguyen, Vietgone – “A sexy comedy about culture-shocked, grieving Vietnamese refugees who fled to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon? Where everyone is really speaking Vietnamese, but we’re hearing it as slangy, cheeky English? I marveled at what this playwright was bringing off,” commented one panelist about “Vietgone,” “a very entertaining, fresh tale that slyly reveals its darker contours.” Others noted that the play offers “a vivid, specific voice, a wonderful sense of humor and compelling stakes” and that Nguyen “does great things with fine sensibility, language and structure, along with the right mix of lunacy” in style that “is as fresh as the content.” “Vietgone” premiered at South Coast Repertory.
Jen Silverman, The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane – A soccer star is drawn back home in search of her lover, who runs a safe house for women, in this “smart, stunning, excellent” play. It is, according to one panelist, “an illuminating political play that uses memorable, flawed characters to tell a powerful and personal story.” Another added that the play is “an assured, fascinating window into the abuse of women in South Africa, but also much more – a lyrical love story, a probe of how media can help and hurt when drawing attention to violence, the conundrum of deciding whether to live in a foreign country where you can be safe and prosper or remain at your own peril in your tumultuous native land.” “The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane” was first staged by Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre.
Jonathan Norton, Mississippi Goddamn – Norton takes us to the house next door to Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers in this drama about a family making tough decisions in a tumultuous time. “He may have used Nina Simone’s song as his title, but the play’s content isn’t borrowed at all,” one panelist commented. Others added that the “fast-moving, dramatic, and revelatory” play with a “truly explosive, molten core” includes “nothing PC or sentimental.” The play has, according to another, “a raw quality that actually benefits the tense ‘desperate hours’ scenario of neighbors and families divided by the insidious pressures of racism.” “Mississippi Goddamn” premiered at the South Dallas Cultural Center.
Lynn Nottage, Sweat – Disappearing jobs impact a group of friends in a play that features “great storytelling” with “a rich gallery of characters” and “a compelling story arc,” according to panelists. In the great tradition of bar-set plays, “One could say ‘Sweat’ is about the ways the national economy is shifting away from manufacturing jobs. One could also say it’s about parents and children, about how skin color separates in ways we can’t/don’t often articulate, and about how business decisions made by unseen people in power can destroy lives.” It’s “an extraordinary play” that “grabs at the beginning and packs a wallop in the end.” “Sweat” premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Past awardees have included: “33 Variations” by Moises Kaufman, “The Christians” by Lucas Hnath, Rebecca Gilman’s “Luna Gale,” Robert Schenkkan’s “All The Way,” Yussef El Guindi’s “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World,” Bill Cain’s “Equivocation” and Donald Margulies’ “Time Stands Still.” For a full list of all of our winners and runners-up, click here.
By the way, “The Christians” will be produced next season at Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach.
The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust was created in 1986 by Harold Steinberg on behalf of himself and his late wife. Pursuing its primary mission to support the American theater, it has provided grants totaling millions of dollars for new productions of American plays and educational programs for those who may not ordinarily experience live theater.
ATCA also presents the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award, honoring emerging playwrights. It also administers the $10,000 Francesca Primus Prize, funded by the Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation, honoring outstanding contributions to the American theater by female artists who have not yet achieved national prominence. Annually, ATCA makes a recommendation for the Regional Theatre Tony Award presented by the American Theatre Wing/Broadway League and votes on inductions into the Theater Hall of Fame.
ATCA’s new play committee was led by Lou Harry of the Indianapolis Business Journal/IBJ.com. Other committee members are Kathleen Allen, freelance (Tucson, AZ); Misha Berson, Seattle Times; Bruce Burgun, freelance (New Orleans, LA.); Lindsay Christians, The Capital Times (Madison, WI); Evans Donnell, Nashvilleartscritic.com (Nashville, TN); Pam Harbaugh, BrevardCulture.com, floridatheatreonstage.com (Indialantic, FL); Michael P. Howley, theatremontgomery.blogspot.com(Montgomery, AL); Erin Keane, culture editor, Salon.com (Louisville, KY); Jerry Kraft,www.SeattleActor.com, (Port Angeles, Wash.); Mark Lowry, TheaterJones.com and Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Dallas, TX); Julius Novick, veteran critic and professor (New York City); Kathryn Osenlund, CurtainUp, Phindie (Philadelphia); Wendy Parker, XX (Midlothian, Va); Frank Rizzo, Variety (New Haven, CT); David Sheward, ArtsinNY.com, Theaterlife.com, CulturalWeekly.com (Jackson Heights, NY); Martha Wade Steketee, Howlround.com, TDF Stages, UrbanExcavations.com (New York, NY); Herb Simpson, artesmagazine.com,and totaltheater.com (Geneseo, N.Y.); and Perry Tannenbaum, Creative Loafing, CVNC.org, Charlotte, NC).
For more information on ATCA, visit AmericanTheatreCritics.org.