With a long, rich history number of proven, previously produced plays to choose from, I'm pleased that there are still theaters around the country committed to staging new work.
This weekend, the Phoenix Theatre opened "On Clover Road," next week Q Artistry premieres "White City Murder," and just a short drive away, the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville is in full swing (more on all of those in later columns and blogs). Theaters from the Indiana Repertory Theatre with its devotion to James Still's work to Theatre to the fests run by Indy Fringe have demonstrated a willingness to step into the theatrical unknown.
The wealth of new work out there is reflected in the just-announced finalists for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, recognizing playwrights for the best scripts that premiered professionally outside New York City during 2015.
As chair of ATCA's New Plays Committee which selects those winners, I've spent the last year fielding recommendations from critics around the country, vetting these plays for eligibility, reading the work and vigorously debating their merits with my fellow committee members. I recently contacted the top winners and will be in Louisville April 9 presenting the top award of $25,000 and two citations of $7,500 each.
At $40,000, Steinberg/ATCA is the largest national new play award program of its kind.
The finalists, alphabetically by play:
Bloomsday, by Steven Dietz – “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.
Clarkston, by Samuel D. Hunter – “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.
The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane, by Jen Silverman – 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.
Mississippi Goddamn, by Jonathan Norton – 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.
Sweat, by Lynn Nottage – 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.
Vietgone, by Qui Nguyen – “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.
See you in Louisville, perhaps? The Humana Festival, which offers a different batch of all-new work, is already up and running. Details here.