The 2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize was awarded April 7 to U.S. playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza for her play cullud wattah, about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. This year’s judges also awarded special commendations to finalists Kimber Lee for The Water Palace and Ife Olujobi for Jordans.
Check out the entire ceremony, including Dickerson-Despenza’s full acceptance speech, above.
“As a playwright, I aspire to be a delicate sculptor of everyday horrors,” said the playwright upon winning. “I wrote cullud wattah to explore the politics of disgust, shame, and refusal by highlighting the rupture of government intervention at the intersection of capitalism and environmental racism. The play examines the impact of these horrors so routinely visited upon dispossessed peoples, namely Black women. I wrote this play specifically for Black women on the margins of the margins.”
Cullud wattah was due to premiere at The Public Theater in 2020, but the production was canceled due to the pandemic. Her other plays include shadow/land and [hieroglyph], the latter having just received a virtual staging in a San Francisco Playhouse and Lorraine Hansberry Theatre co-production. The former will debut April 13 as a radio play presentation by The Public. Both cullud wattah and [hieroglyph] were included in the 2019 edition of The Kilroys List.
Paapa Essiedu, a judge this year, announced the winner. The prize comes with an award of $25,000 and a signed and numbered print by artist Willem de Kooning. The two special commendation recipients received a $10,000 award.
“What a play,” said Essiedu of cullud wattah. “Oh my God, what a play! When I say that this play hit me like a train. Like a ton of bricks. I don’t think I slept for about three weeks after reading this play. It did something very significant to me.” Joining Essiedu on the panel of judges this year were Natalie Abrahami, Bunny Christie, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Jason Butler Harner, and Seema Sueko.
The 2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize virtual ceremony, hosted by past winner Marsha Norman (‘night Mother), honored all 10 finalists with speeches to highlight the impact of each work. As previously announced, this year’s finalists also included Glace Chase for Triple X, Miranda Rose Hall for A Play for the LIving in the Time of Extinction, Dawn King for The Trials, Janice Okoh for The Gift, Frances Poet for Maggie May, Jiehae Park for The Aves, and Beth Steel for The House of Shades. Over 150 plays were considered for the award.
Awarded annually since 1977, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize honors a new English language play written by a woman. It is the largest and oldest international prize honoring female playwrights. In addition to $25,000, winners receive a signed and numbered print by artist Willem de Kooning.
Lucy Prebble won the award in 2020 for her play A Very Expensive Poison. Past recipients also include Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, Caryl Churchill’s Fen, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti (Dishonour), and Julia Cho’s The Language Archive.