For the second year in a row, a play which debuted at DC’s Source Festival is in line for a playwriting award.
Last year, Topher Payne’s Perfect Arrangement received the American Theatre Critics Association’s $1,000 M. Elizabeth Osborne Award for top play by an emerging writer.
This year, Nathan Alan Davis’ lyric epic, Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea is one of six finalists for ATCA’s $25,000 Steinberg Award, given annually to the best new play produced outside the City of New York.
DCTS called Dontrell, a story of a young Baltimore man who sought to connect with his roots by embracing a heroic ancestor a heroic ancestor who drown himself in the Atlantic rather than live as a slave, a “compelling and hilarious and heartbreaking drama, which is large enough to embrace an ocean and a continent and some of the worst days in human history and the quotidian events in the life of a family about to send their son to the best college in town.”
The Steinberg Award is given annually by ATCA and is endowed by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust. Last year’s Steinberg’s top prize went to Lauren Gunderson’s widely-hailed I and You, part of the rolling premieres from National New Play Network, seen at Olney Theatre last year.
Also among this year’s final six are The Christians, a Lucas Hnath play which debuted at the Humana Festival last year. Staged as a continuous church service, The Christians traces the conflict between a charismatic pastor who astonishes his congregation by declaring that Hell does not exist, and his old-school assistant. Erin Keane, the culture editor for Salon.com, observed that “this is a play that people of faiths of all stripes, as well as nonbelievers, can engage with on a meaningful level,” and Indianapolis Business Journal critic Lou Harry opined that it “shatters expectations across the board, creating an original, riveting, thought-provoking drama with characters whose sincerity fuels fascinating conflict.” Hnath’s Red Speedo played at Studio in 2013.
Luna Gale, the story of a social worker who must find a home for the infant child of two meth-addicted parents, is also a finalist. In the prolific playwright Rebecca Gilman’s story, the child’s grandmother, who belongs to an apocalyptic cult, seeks custody, and the social worker’s boss backs her. “With its crisp, taut structure and rapidly-rising conflict, Luna Gale may be Gilman’s most technically-assured work, told with wit and twists,” according to Windy City Times critic Jonathan Abarbanel.
Caitlin Parrish’s Downpour “is as tense and disturbing an experience as any thriller you might find at the multiplex,” according to Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones. It is the story of two sisters whose mother’s extreme post-partum depression had subjected them to a childhood of bizarre abuse. Now, one of the sisters is going to have a child of her own.
Another finalist is Thomas Coash’s Veils, the story of a young American Muslim’s semester abroad in Egypt with a secularized Egyptian Muslim – on the eve of the Arab Spring rebellion which overthrew Mubarek. April Boyle of the Portland Press Herald called the story “mesmerizing” and noted that “[b]oth sides of the issues facing Muslim women are represented fairly, and passionately.”
Richard Strand’s Butler, an account of a strange but true civil war incident, rounds out the finalists. Strand’s account of the dilemma facing Major General Benjamin Butler, newly commissioned and commanding a fort in Virginia, hours after its succession from the Union. It appears that three escaped Southern slaves have appeared on his doorstep, and refuse to leave. Ken Jaworowski of the New York Times calls the play “a hoot”. Comparing Strand to Tom Stoppard and Edward Albee, Jaworowski says that “[r]ather than dry exposition or long-winded discussions, [the characters] use wordplay that is by turns sarcastic, droll and witty.
The American Theatre Critics is the only national association of professional theater critics, with several hundred members working for newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations and websites. It is affiliated with the International Association of Theatre Critics, a UNESCO-affiliated organization that sponsors seminars and congresses worldwide.
ATCA will announce the Steinberg winner, along with the winner of this year’s Osborne Prize, at the Humana Festival of New American Plays on April 11, 2015.