Aya Ogawa and Kit Yan
(August 30) New York, NY – Four exemplary American playwrights are the 2023 recipients of The New York Community Trust’s Helen Merrill Award for Playwriting — one of the theater world’s most prestigious prizes for playwrights.
To help sustain the singular voices these playwrights bring to the theater, unrestricted $30,000 awards went to Guadalís Del Carmen, Cassandra Medley, Aya Ogawa, and Kit Yan.
The awards provide recipients the financial freedom to pursue their careers in theater. Previous awardees have subsequently received Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards, Obie Awards, and Guggenheim Fellowships among other honors.
Each year, an advisory committee composed of theater professionals chooses awardees from writers in all phases of their careers. This year’s advisors include Lisa McNulty, Ralph Peña, Niegel Smith, Lloyd Suh, and Stephanie Ybarra.
“Each of these recipients embody the qualities that inspired Helen Merrill: creative daring, unique perspective, and fierce love for theater,” said Salem Tsegaye, Trust program officer for arts and culture. “We’re grateful to our advisory committee for recommending yet another outstanding cohort of awardees and look forward to seeing the works these playwrights will create over the years.”
Spotlighting Talent for Years
The late theatrical agent Helen Merrill created a fund in The New York Community Trust in 1999 to help playwrights explore their visions without the burden of financial pressures. Since then, the Fund has made 107 awards totaling more than $2.4 million.
“I’m so thrilled and deeply honored to receive this award and to be in the company of such esteemed colleagues,” said Ogawa. “After many years in the experimental theater scene where I often felt invisible and marginalized, it feels shocking to be recognized in this way.”
Last year, the Fund awarded Gethsemane Herron, Zora Howard, C.A. Johnson, Michelle J. Rodriguez, and Cori Thomas cash prizes of $30,000 each. In 2021, Eboni Booth, Ty Defoe, Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi, Daaimah Mubashshir, and Andrea Thome each received $25,000. The late William Yellow Robe, Jr. received $40,000 for his distinguished career in and service to the field.
In 2019, A Strange Loop playwright Michael R. Jackson received his Helen Merrill Award before going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2020—the first Black playwright to win the prize for a musical. Last year, Jackson’s play took home the Tony Award for best musical
About the 2023 Recipients
Biographies provided by the artists and edited for brevity
Guadalís Del Carmen (she/her) is a Black Dominican playwright, screenwriter, and performer. She is an Ars Nova PlayGroup alum, 2020 Steinberg Playwriting Award recipient, a Yale Rep and Long Wharf commissioned Artist, and Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of the Latinx Playwrights Circle. Del Carmen has written acclaimed plays such as Not For Sale (nominated for a Jeff Award in 2019), My Father’s Keeper (The Kilroys Honorable Mention, 2019), A Shero’s Journey or What Anacaona and Yemayá Taught Me, Bees and Honey (MCC Theater/The Sol Project, 2023), and Daughters of the Rebellion (The Kilroys Honorable Mention, 2017).
Cassandra Medley (she/her) is a Black playwright and teacher who has won the August Wilson Prize, the Ensemble Studio Theatre Life Achievement Award, Theatrefest Regional Playwriting Award for Best Play, National Endowment for the Arts Playwright Award, and a New York Foundation for Arts Fellowship. Her works have been commissioned by the Ensemble Studio Theater, Blackberry Productions, Trilogy Opera Company, Gatekeepers Collective, Bread and Roses Theater, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and Martha’s Vineyard Theater. Her plays include: Libretto for Fannie Lou Hamer Opera, Mrs. Palmer’s Honey, Cell, Noon Day Sun, Relativity, Motherless Child, and Take My Advice.
Aya Ogawa (they/them) is a Tokyo-born, Brooklyn-based playwright, director, performer, and translator whose work centers women and nonbinary perspectives and explores cultural identity and the immigrant experience. Ogawa’s plays include The Nosebleed (winner of an Obie Award and touring several cities in 2024), A Girl of 16, Oph3lia, Journey to the Ocean, and Ludic Proxy. They also directed Haruna Lee’s Obie Award-winning Suicide Forest and have translated numerous works of contemporary Japanese playwrights into English. Ogawa is a recipient of multiple honors, including a 2023 Foundation for Contemporary Arts grant, a New York Community Trust Van Lier Fellowship and residency at New Dramatists, and the 2015 President’s Award in Performing Arts from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
Kit Yan (they/he/she) is a transgender, Yellow American, New York-based artist, born in China, and raised in the Kingdom of Hawaii. Kit is a 2022 ASCAP Harold Adamson Lyric Award recipient, 2021 Jonathan Larson Grant and 2021 Kleban Prize recipient for Libretto, a 2021 Sundance IDP Fellow and grantee, a Vivace Award recipient for big ideas in musical theater, a former Lincoln Center Writer in residence, Hermitage Fellow, Sundance IDP Fellow, Dramatists Guild Foundation Fellow, and MacDowell Fellow. Their works include INTERSTATE, which won “Best Lyrics” at the 2018 New York Musical Theater Festival and was produced at Mixed Blood and East West Players, and MISS STEP, developed at Playwrights Horizons, 5th Ave, and Village Theater. Their work has been produced by the American Repertory Theater, Lincoln Center, the Smithsonian, NAMT, Musical Theater Factory, the New York Musical Festival, Mixed Blood, and Diversionary Theater.
About The New York Community Trust
The New York Community Trust is New York City’s largest community foundation. It connects generous people and institutions with high-impact nonprofits making the city, Long Island, and Westchester a better place for all. It builds stronger communities, influences public policy, fosters innovation, improves lives, and protects our environment.