The 2016 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize was awarded Feb. 22 in London to U.S. playwright Lynn Nottage for her play Sweat, a personal and political drama exploring America's industrial decline. In a subsequent interview with The Guardian, the playwright criticized the lack of diverse voices on major stages.
The playwright described theatre as the "last bastion of segregation."
"Up till now our stories haven’t been heard," she told the publication. "I always describe race as the final taboo in American theatre. There’s a real reluctance to have that conversation in an open honest way on the stage." Her comments bring to light recent controversies concerning the lack of racially diverse artists in theatre and film. Tony winner Tonya Pinkins spoke out publicly last year about the issue. "Why, in 2015, in the arts, is there a need to control the creative expression of a black woman?" she said in an open letter published on Playbill. Read the full article here.
In the same interview with The Guardian, Nottage also spoke out against gender disparity in the theatre industry. She joins a host of notable theatre artists including Paula Vogel, Jeanine Tesori and Phyllida Lloyd who have advocated for better gender equality. Nottage argued that "built-in gender bias" continues to be an issue for female artists, highlighting the need for women-only prizes like the Blackburn.
Tanya Moodie, award-winning theatre and film actor and one of this year's Blackburn Prize judges, presented Nottage with an award of $25,000. Established in 1978 in honor of American actress and writer Susan Smith Blackburn, the prize is the oldest and largest award given to women playwrights.
Nottage, who previously won the Pulitzer Prize for Ruined, debuted her newest work, Sweat, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last year. Set in a Pennsylvania town at the turn of the millennium, the characters in Sweat struggle to reclaim what has been lost following the nation's industrial decline. When there is talk of layoffs among a group of factory co-workers and friends, their close bonds begin to shatter. The changes are followed by a horrific crime, which shocks the community.
Chosen from over 150 nominated plays from across the U.S. and U.K., the 2016 finalists, who each received an award of $5,000, were Sarah Burgess' Dry Powder; Rachel Cusk's Medea; Sarah DeLappe's The Wolves; Sam Holcroft's Rules for Living; Anna Jordan's Yen; Suzan-Lori Parks' Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3); Bea Roberts' And Then Come The Nightjars; and Noni Stapleton's Charolais.
For more information on the annual prize, visit www.blackburnprize.org.