The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) has selected three finalists for the 2018 Francesca Primus Prize, sponsored by ATCA and the Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation. The award, presented annually since 1997, recognizes the best work by an emerging woman playwright who has not yet achieved national prominence.
This year’s finalists, in alphabetical order, are Nambi E. Kelley for Jazz (adapted from the novel by Toni Morrison), Jiehae Park for Hannah and the Dread Gazebo, and Leah Nanako Winkler for Two Mile Hollow.
Named in honor of Francesca Primus, a playwright, dramaturg, theater critic and ATCA member who died of cancer in 1992, the Primus Prize was originally administered through the Denver Center Theatre Company. Since 2002, ATCA has adjudicated the award, which includes a $10,000 grant presented through the generosity of the Primus Foundation as well as a plaque for the winning author.
To qualify for submission during this cycle, the plays must have had a full production within the 2017 calendar year. Submissions by the competing playwrights were made in 2018.
This year’s Primus Prize Committee was composed of Marianne Evett, Michael Howley, Marjorie Oberlander, Lynn Rosen, Wendy Rosenfield, and Nicole Serratore, and was chaired by Kerry Reid, who assumed the role after the death of longtime chair Barbara Bannon in October 2018.
Kelley’s Jazz premiered at Baltimore Center Stage in January 2017, where Tina Smith of the Baltimore Sun described it “kinetic” and noted that “the cumulative emotional payoff is considerable.” It won praise from the committee as “a vivid adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel, here told in flashback,” with dialogue that “shouts out the compelling and historical story of African American life in 1920s Harlem…lust, life and loss and the ever-enduring love triangle.” Kelley was previously named a Primus Prize finalist in 2015 for her adaptation of Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” She is also an actor and has performed frequently on stages around the country.
Park’s Hannah and the Dread Gazebo premiered at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in March 2017. Jeffrey Gillespie of the Mail Tribune praised it as an “eccentric and astonishing play [that] turns your insides out, but still manages to resolve itself in a profoundly moving and satisfying manner.” The committee took note of its “sense of intricate completeness” in combining the mythic and the mundane in this story of a young Korean-American woman who tries to unravel the mystery of what happened to her grandmother – who may or may not have committed suicide by jumping from the roof of her South Korean retirement home into the Demilitarized Zone.
Winkler’s Two Mile Hollow premiered at the First Floor Theater in the Wicker Park district of Chicago in October 2017. Alex Huntsberger of Time Out Chicago called it a “raucous, shoot-the-prisoners parody.” Winkler’s play takes on the familiar genre of what she has dubbed “white-people-by-the-water plays” – in this case, a wealthy dysfunctional white family gathers at the ancestral beach house to air grievances and bicker over the dead father’s possessions. The twist is that Winkler’s play calls for all the roles to be played by actors of color. “Winkler parodies a portfolio of iconic white male playwrights – i.e., Williams, Chekhov, Wilde – and throws in a few Kennedys for good measure with Grey Gardens references. Never mean-spirited, she also manages to poke fun at the rich and famous who just happen to be white and stupid,” noted the committee.
“The Francesca Primus Foundation is so happy with the way Francesca is being honored by the American Theatre Critics Association,” said Barry Primus, brother of Francesca. “It was always her delight to encourage and support promising playwrights.”
The winner, selected from this year’s three finalists, will be announced by early July.
The American Theatre Critics Associationwas founded in 1974 and works to raise standards and public awareness of the functions and responsibilities of theater critics. It is the only national association of professional theater critics, with over two hundred members working in print, broadcast, and online media. ATCA is a chapter of the International Association of Theatre Critics / Association internationale des critiques de théâtre (IATC-AICT), a UNESCO-affiliated organization that sponsors seminars and congresses worldwide.
ATCA also presents the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award, honoring emerging playwrights, and administers the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award which grants $40,000 annually to recognize the best plays that premiered professionally outside New York City. Additionally, ATCA members recommend an annual candidate for the Tony Award for Regional Theatre presented by the American Theatre Wing/Broadway League, and vote on the yearly inductions into the Theater Hall of Fame.