2020 Helen Merrill Awards Go to Kimber Lee, Diana Oh and Sung Rno

2020 Helen Merrill Awards of $25,000 go to Six

(June 17, 2020) NEW YORK, NY – Six exceptional American playwrights have won a total of $150,000 as the 2020 winners of The New York Community Trust’s Helen Merrill Award for Playwriting.

Helen Merrill 2020 Logo 2019 03 03The winners are Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Kimber Lee, Donja R. Love, Mona Mansour, Diana Oh, and Sung Rno.

The $25,000 award is one of the largest and most significant prizes for playwrights in the nation and, for many, is a springboard that helps propel already distinguished careers to a new level. Previous award winners have gone on to win Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prizes—and many have built long careers on and off Broadway.

The late theatrical agent Helen Merrill created a fund in The New York Community Trust to carry out her charitable legacy. Since 1999, the fund has made 92 awards totaling $1.9 million.

Kimber Lee

Kimber Lee

Theater has long been an important force in advancing social change, and this year’s winners of the Helen Merrill Award represent a diverse and talented group of artists who have been producing courageous material that challenges audiences.

The monetary awards are designed to help give recipients the time and financial security to write—which is especially critical as this year’s winners navigate how to continue to create thought-provoking work during a time of renewed calls for civil rights and unprecedented career disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This is a moment of profound loss for many,” said Salem Tsegaye, The New York Community Trust’s program officer for arts & culture. “In this period of extreme precarity, the Helen Merrill Award, a field honor and cash prize, not only acknowledges the work and contributions of these talented playwrights, but helps ensure that they can sustain their practice and continue to inspire much needed social transformation.”

Mansour, for instance, was set to see her three-play work, The Vagrant Trilogy, make its New York debut at the Public Theater in March—only to see the production postponed to a later date. She, like her colleagues who have received the prize, sees it as an opportunity to help carry work forward at a critical time.

Diana Oh

Diana Oh

“This is a time of unprecedented uncertainty for everyone and the timing of this award is like a miracle,” Mansour said. “I’m honored to be in the company of this group of playwrights, all of whom have been forced to confront some sort of danger in their lives and write in the face of fear. This award provides an opportunity to keep creating and giving voice to those in our communities.”


This year’s winners are a diverse and talented group of playwrights, all of whom are known for writing timely, important works that are expanding the boundaries of American theater. Biographies of the winners follow*:

Donnetta Lavinia Grays (she/her/hers) is a Brooklyn-based playwright and actor. Her plays include Where We Stand (Lucille Lortel / Drama League Award Nominee), Warriors Don’t Cry, Last Night and the Night Before, Laid to Rest, and The Review (O’Neill Playwrights Conference Finalist). She is an alumna of Space on Ryder Farm’s Working Farm Residency, Time Warner Foundation WP Playwrights Lab, The Civilians’ R&D Group, and terraNova Collective’s Groundbreakers Playwright group.

She is a recipient of the National Theater Conference’s Barrie and Bernice Stavis Playwright Award and the inaugural recipient of the Doric Wilson Independent Playwright Award. She has developed work with New Harmony Project, Labyrinth Theater, New York Theater Workshop, Ground Floor/Berkeley Rep., Kansas City Rep., Hedgebrook, Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Portland Stage, Pure Theatre, Naked Angels, and Classical Theater of Harlem. Grays holds commissions from Steppenwolf, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and WP Theater. She is a staff writer for Y: The Last Man on FX and Manhunt: Lone Wolf on Spectrum Originals. Her acting credits include Broadway’s In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play and Well and she has made notable New York theater appearances, including O, Earth at The Foundry Theatre, Men On Boats at Playwrights Horizons/Clubbed Thumb, Of Government and 16 Words or Less (Clubbed Thumb), Be the Death of Me and In The Footprint (The Civilians), and Shipwrecked! An Entertainment at Primary Stages. She is a two-time Connecticut Critics Circle Award winner and Helen Hayes Award nominee.

Kimber Lee’s (she/her/hers) plays include to the yellow house (upcoming world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse), untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play (2019 O’Neill National Playwrights Conference), tokyo fish story (South Coast Rep, TheatreWorks/SV, Old Globe), brownsville song (b-side for tray) (Humana Festival, LCT3, Long Wharf Theatre, Philadelphia Theatre Company, Seattle Rep, Moxie Theatre, Shotgun Players), and different words for the same thing, directed by Neel Keller (Center Theatre Group).

She has developed work with Lark Play Development Center, The Ground Floor/Berkeley Rep, p73, Hedgebrook, Ojai Playwrights Conference, Seven Devils Playwrights Conference, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Great Plains Theatre Conference, ACT Theatre/Seattle, Premiere Stages, MTC, and Magic Theatre/Virgin Series. Lee is a Lark Playwrights Workshop Fellow, Dramatists Guild Fellow, member of Ma-Yi Writers Lab, and recipient of the Ruby Prize, PoNY Fellowship, Hartford Stage New Voices Fellowship, BAU Institute Arts Residency Award, Kilroys List, 2020-2021 Hodder Fellowship, 2020 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize finalist, and inaugural winner of the Bruntwood Prize International Award (2019). She received her Master’s in Fine Arts from the University of Texas.

Donja R. Love (he/him/his) is a Philadelphia native whose work examines the forced absurdity of life for those who identify as black, queer, and HIV-positive—an intersection filled with stories that challenge white supremacist, heteronormative structures that exist in American culture. Plays include soft, one in two (The New Group), Fireflies (Atlantic Theater Company), Sugar in Our Wounds (Manhattan Theatre Club, Lucille Lortel, and Outer Critics Circle Nominations), and The Trade.

Love is the recipient of the Laurents/Hatcher Award and the Princess Grace Playwriting Award. Other honors include The Lark’s Van Lier New Voices Fellowship (a program funded by The New York Community Trust), The Playwrights Realm’s Writing Fellowship, and the Philadelphia Adult Grand Slam Poetry Champion. He’s the co-founder of The Each-Other Project, an organization that helps build community and provide visibility, through art and advocacy, for LGBTQ+ people of color. He’s a graduate of the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at The Juilliard School.

Mona Mansour’s (she/her/hers) The Vagrant Trilogy was set to make its New York debut in March at the Public Theater. Directed by Mark Wing-Davey, the production was postponed. Of the trilogy, The Hour of Feeling debuted at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. An Arabic translation was presented at NYU Abu Dhabi as part of its Arab Voices Festival in 2016. Urge for Going was presented at the Public Theater and San Francisco’s Golden Thread, directed by Evren Odcikin, and The Vagrant was commissioned by the Public and workshopped at the 2013 Sundance Theater Institute. Her play We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War is scheduled to debut at Geva Theatre in Rochester in April 2021, directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh, and Beginning Days of True Jubilation, created with her theater company SOCIETY, will premiere this summer, directed by Scott Illingworth.

Mansour was a member of the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group. With Tala Manassah she has written Falling Down the Stairs, an EST/Sloan commission, and Dressing, part of Facing Our Truths, commissioned by the New Black Festival. Her awards and commissions include Playwrights Horizons and OSF’s American Revolutions; 2012 Whiting Award; 2014 Middle East America Playwright Award; MacDowell Colony 2018; New Dramatists Class of 2021.

Diana Oh (they/she/punk goddex) is a performer, actor, singer, songwriter, musician, and creator of installations, concerts, rituals, and parties. As a Refinery29 Top LGBTQ Influencer and the first queer Korean-American interviewed on Korean Broadcast Radio, Oh is the creator of The Infinite Love Party (a potluck dinner, dance party, and sleepover for QTPOC and their allies); {my lingerie play} with touring national installations and concerts staged in an effort to provide a safer, more courageous world for women, queer, trans, and non-binary humans to live in; CLAIRVOYANCE (an installation and concert series in Harvard Yard, the Boston Public Library, Institute of Contemporary Art, Harvard Arboretum, and A.R.T.); 24 Hour Punk (National Black Theatre); Asian People Are Not Magicians (mic.com); and My H8 Letter to the Gr8 American Theatre (The Public Theater). Oh’s television and film work includes: Queering, How to Be Single, NY is Dead (Tribeca Film Festival), Hey Yun, Unicornland. Oh has taken part in the following fellowships: TOW Fellow (Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre), New York Community Trust Van Lier Fellow (Asian American Arts Alliance), Venturous Capital Fellow, Sundance Institute Fellow, writer/performer with The Public Theater’s Mobile Unit and previous member of EWG, Williamstown Theatre Festival Artist-in-Residence.

Sung Rno’s (he/him/his) plays include wAve, Drizzle and Other Stories, Cleveland Raining, Gravity Falls From Trees, Yi Sang Counts to Thirteen, Galois (musical written with composer Aaron Jones) and Happy. His work has been produced and developed by Ma-Yi Theater Company, Second Generation (2G), New York International Fringe Festival, Mabou Mines, Immigrants Theater Project, East West Players, Thick Description, Asian American Theater Company, Northwest Asian American Theater, San Diego Asian American Rep, Pan Asian Rep, Mark Taper Forum, Arena Stage, Joseph Papp Public Theater, Seoul International Theater Festival and Yellow Earth Theater (London). His work is published in Version 3.0 (TCG), 7 Contemporary Plays from the Korean Diaspora (Duke), Savage Stage (Ma-Yi Press), and But Still, Like Air, I’ll Rise (Temple). Honors include the Whitfield Cook Prize, the Seattle Group Theater’s Multicultural Playwriting Award, Best Overall Play in the New York Fringe Festival, New York Community Trust Van Lier Fellowship with New Dramatists, and an NEA/TCG residency with Ma-Yi Theater, where he founded the Ma-Yi Writers’ Lab to foster the next generation of Asian American playwrights. As a writer/producer, he won first prize in the Asian American Film Festival 64 Hour Film Shootout (for “Crumple,” directed by CS Lee) and first prize in the Interpretations Short Film Contest (for “Swing,” directed by Andrew Pang). He received a BA in physics from Harvard University and an MFA in creative writing from Brown University. He is an alumnus of New Dramatists.

*Biographies provided by award recipients and edited for style and consistency.


Born in 1918, Helen Merrill was a theatrical agent and mentor to aspiring playwrights, directors, and composers in New York City. She grew up in Cologne, Germany, and moved to New York City with her family as the Nazis took power. Starting out as a photographer, Merrill transitioned to theater in the late 1970s. She found new talent by attending off-Broadway productions. Her sharp tongue, witty sense of humor, and faith in the unconventional made her a beloved member of the New York theater scene.

The purpose of her namesake award is to allow playwrights to pursue their talents and continue on their path with financial pressures abated and no strings attached. Winners can put their funds towards childcare, rent, or other household needs.

“The Helen Merrill Award allowed me to do some long-term financial planning, as well as organize and enjoy my life a bit,” said Michael R. Jackson, a 2019 award recipient. “It confirms my belief that musicals can and should have the same integrity and depth as plays.”

Jackson was recently awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his musical, A Strange Loop. Following its premiere Off-Broadway, A Strange Loop was set to open at Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theater in September. The D.C. engagement has now been pushed back to summer 2021.

Through different permanent charitable funds created by donors, The Trust is able to support artists along the arc of their careers. In addition to the Helen Merrill Award, The Trust runs the Edward and Sally Van Lier Fellowship Program, which provides support for talented young people from historically underrepresented populations who are dedicated to a career in the arts. Sung Rno, Diana Oh, and Donja R. Love are past recipients of Van Lier Fellowships (details in biographies above).


An Advisory Committee composed of five leaders in the field of theater recommends recipients for the Helen Merrill Award for Playwriting. The award committee does not accept nominations or applications. The 2020 committee members include: Lisa McNulty, Ralph Peña, Niegel Smith, Lloyd Suh, and Stephanie Ybarra.

Past winners include Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, Amy Herzog, Michael R. Jackson, Lisa Kron, Michael Lew, Taylor Mac, Qui Nguyen, and Jackie Sibblies Drury.

While the list of past recipients is impressive, the committee’s composition of leaders in theater can create a profound sense of acknowledgement for award winners.

“I was taken seriously and appreciated by…colleagues I respect and people who understand just what the work of playwriting entails,” said Ellen McLaughlin, 2017 award recipient. “It changes everything.”


The New York Community Trust connects past, present, and future generous New Yorkers with vital nonprofits working to make a healthy, equitable, and thriving community for all. It is a public grantmaking foundation dedicated to improving the lives of residents of New York City, Westchester, and Long Island. For more information, visit nycommunitytrust.org.


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