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Playwrights Morisseau, Jacobs-Jenkins To Receive Steinberg Award

“My plays insist that we should not forget or toss away our history.” That was playwright August Wilson, considered one of the greatest literary voices of the 20th century and the Black American experience. Keeping that tradition alive and offering the 21st century powerful perspectives in culture and humanity are two recipients of the prestigious biennial Steinberg Playwright Awards: Dominique Morisseau and Branden Jacob-Jenkins. Each dramatist, prized with a $50,000 grant by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, will be awarded Nov. 16 at Lincoln Center Theater.

Morisseau, an alumna of The Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group, Women’s Project Theater’s Playwrights Lab and Lark Playwrights’ Workshop, earned her bachelor’s in acting from the University of Michigan. Now a story editor on Showtime’s “Shameless” and based in New York, her career began as a performance poet in the Harmonie Park community of Detroit. As an actress, she starred in a 2013 production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop (Actors’ Theatre of Louisville). This year, she was named among the Top 20 most-produced U.S. playwrights for the 2015-2016 season, which also includes Wilson.

Ben Brantley of The New York Times described Morisseau as a writer “who knows the code for getting under our skins.” She has done so with her 2014 play Blood at the Root – inspired by the Jena Six and initially directed by Penn State’s Steve H. Broadnax III – as well as her celebrated trilogy of plays known as The Detroit Project. The cycle includes:

  • Detroit ’67, which delves into the 1967 riots in the city amid the back group of Motown music. First performed at The Public Theater in 2013, it ran at Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company in February under the direction of Kamilah Forbes and recently completed a West Coast run at the Los Angeles Theater Center under the direction of Joy Hooper.
  • Paradise Blue, set in 1949 during the Jazz era, centers on a Black trumpeter and highlights a thriving Black community and business strip – complete with jazz clubs – faced with displacement by a housing act that cleared the way for the 75 Chrysler Freeway. Staged at Williamstown Theater Festival during the summer, the play was directed by Tony Award winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson and featured actor Blair Underwood.
  • Skeleton Crew tells the story of four Detroit auto workers in the face of the 2008 recession. Having appeared at the New Voices Festival and workshopped at The Lark during 2014, the play will be produced for its world premiere in January by Atlantic Theater Company.

Among Morisseau’s other plays are: Sunset Baby (Labyrinth Theater Co. – NYC, Gate Theater – London) and Follow Me To Nellie’s (O’Neill, Premiere Stages). Her additional awards are: two NAACP Image Awards; Sky Cooper New American Play Prize; and the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History.  Her work also has appeared in South Africa, Scotland and Australia.

New York Times theatre critic Brantley called Brooklyn-based Jacobs-Jenkins “one of this country’s most original and unsettling dramatists.” The Residency Five playwright at Signature Theatre and a Lila Acheson Wallace Fellow at The Juilliard School, Jacobs-Jenkins received Obie awards for best new American play in Appropriate (Actors Theatre of Louisville, Victory Gardens Theater, Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company, Signature Theatre) and An Octoroon (Soho Rep).

  • Appropriate follows three adult children of the Lafayette family patriarch who return to his former Arkansas plantation to liquidate the estate. A compulsive hoarder, they stumble upon a gruesome family secret among his belongings.
  • An Octoroon is an adaptation of 19th century Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s melodrama about slavery in America. Judge Peyton is dead and his plantation is in financial ruins. When his handsome nephew, George, arrives as heir apparent, he quickly falls in love with Zoe, a beautiful octoroon. But the evil overseer has other plans for the plantation and Zoe.

The 1984-born playwright, dramaturg and performer is known for his unconventional comedy Neighbors, which uses minstrelsy to explore the history of Black theatre and to confront tensions in “post-racial” America when a family of Black actors – in blackface – move into the neighborhood. His play Gloria – about an ambitious group of editorial assistants at a notorious Manhattan magazine in a race for a book deal before turning 30 – was staged at Vineyard Theater to critical acclaim.

Lincoln Center Theater will present his family drama War next spring for its New York premiere. Commissioned and previously staged by Yale Repertory Theatre, the play works to navigate landmines of the past as brother and sister search for peace at the hospital bedside of their comatose mother and discover a shocking claim about their grandfather’s WWII tour of duty.

With a master’s in performance studies from New York University, Jacobs-Jenkins has taught at his alma mater and Queens University of Charlotte. His honors include: a Paula Vogel Award; a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts; a Helen Merrill Award; and the inaugural Tennessee Williams Award. His work also has been featured in Germany and London.

Hungarian-born playwright Lajos Egri, author of The Art of Dramatic Writing and The Art of Creative Writing, said: “No two dramatists think or write alike. Ten thousand playwrights can take the same premise, as they have done since Shakespeare, and not one play will resemble the other except in the premise. Your knowledge, your understanding of human nature and your imagination will take care of that.”

The knowledge, understanding of human nature and imagination of Morisseau and Jacobs-Jenkins will leave audiences for generations remembering history – both its grit and its grace.

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