The 2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize has been awarded to U.S. playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza for her play about the Flint, Michigan water crisis, cullad wattah. Awarded annually since 1977, The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize is the largest and oldest international prize honoring Women+ playwrights. On April 7, a livestream of the award ceremony honored Dickerson-Despenza and the other 9 Finalists. Award-winning star of stage and screen, and one of this year’s Blackburn Prize Judges, Paapa Essiedu, announced the winning play, which comes with an award of $25,000 and a signed and numbered print by artist Willem de Kooning.
“What a play. 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. … Through its passionate exploration of the black female experience in America right now I feel like this play is going to be a classic of today and of years to come,” said Paapa Essiedu on presenting the Prize on April 7.
The Judges of the 2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize also awarded two Special Commendations to finalists, a rare move which speaks to the strength of this year’s field of writers. Kimber Lee’s The Water Palace and Ife Olujobi’s Jordans each were awarded the $10,000 Special Commendation.
In addition to Mr. Essiedu, the international panel of judges for the 2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize included theatre, opera and film director Natalie Abrahami (UK); winner of multiple Olivier awards for production design, Bunny Christie (UK); Lincoln Center Resident Director Lileana Blain-Cruz (US); Broadway and television star Jason Butler Harner (US); and Theatre and Arts leader and director, Seema Sueko (US).
Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-Winning playwright, Marsha Norman, hosted the Prize Ceremony. Ms. Norman won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 1983 for her play ‘night Mother, and is a board member emeritus for the Prize. Jenny Jules, star of Broadway’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, former Blackburn Prize Judge and current Board Member, introduced the Judges, who spoke of the importance of each Finalist’s play.
The list of 2021 Finalists for The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, chosen from over 150 plays, includes Glace Chase (Aus./U.S.) Triple X; Miranda Rose Hall (U.S.) A Play for Living in the Time of Extinction; Dawn King (U.K.), The Trials; Janice Okoh (U.K.), The Gift; Frances Poet (U.K.), Maggie May; Jihae Park (U.S.), The Aves; and Beth Steel (U.K.), The House of Shades. Each Finalist received an award of $5000.
The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, co-founded by Susan’s sister, Emilie Kilgore, and Susan’s husband, William Blackburn, honors an outstanding new English-language play by a woman each year. It is the first major playwriting prize for women. Since the Prize’s founding in 1978, over 470 plays have been honored as Finalists. Many have gone on to receive other top honors, including Olivier, Lilly, Evening Standard and Tony Awards for Best Play. Ten Susan Smith Blackburn Finalist plays have subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. The Prize has also fostered an interchange of plays between the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and other English-speaking countries.
Past winners of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize include Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, Annie Baker’s The Flick, Caryl Churchill’s Fen, Marsha Norman’s ‘night,Mother, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, Nell Dunn’s Steaming, Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, Chloe Moss’s This Wide Night, Sarah Ruhl’s The Clean House, Judith Thompson’s Palace of the End, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti (Dishonour), Julia Cho’s The Language Archive, Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, Charlotte Jones’ Humble Boy, Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare, and Moira Buffini’s Silence.
Each year artistic directors and prominent professionals in the theatre throughout the English-speaking world are asked to submit plays. In addition to the U.S., the U.K. and Ireland, new plays have been submitted from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India. Plays are eligible whether or not they have been produced, but any premiere production must have occurred within the preceding year.
Over 150 plays were submitted for consideration this year. The submitting theatres for the 2021 Finalists are Almeida Theatre (U.K.), American Conservatory Theatre (U.S.), Belgrade Theatre (U.K.), Boundless Theatre (U.K.), Curve Theatre(U.K.), Lark Theatre (U.S.), Queensland Theatre (Aus.), Seattle Rep (U.S.), Sundance Institute Theatre Program (U.S.),The Public Theater (U.S.)
ERIKA DICKERSON-DESPENZA is a Blk, queer feminist poet-playwright and cultural-memory worker from Chicago, Illinois. She is a 2020 Grist 50 Fixer and was a National Arts & Culture Delegate for the U.S. Water Alliance’s One Water Summit 2019. Awards: Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award (2020), Thom Thomas Award (2020), Lilly Award (2020), Barrie and Bernice Stavis Award (2020), Steinberg Playwright Award (2020), Princess Grace Playwriting Award (2019, for cullud wattah). Residencies & Fellowships: Tow Playwright-in-Residence at The Public Theater (2019-2020), New York Stage and Film Fellow-in-Residence (2019), New Harmony Project Writer-in Residence (2019), Dramatists Guild Foundation Fellow (2018-2019), The Lark Van Lier New Voices Fellow (2018). Communities: BYP100 Squad Member, Ars Nova Play Group (2019-2021), Youngblood Collective (EST). Commissions: The Public Theater, Studio Theatre & Williamstown Theatre Festival. Productions: cullud wattah (2019 Kilroys List) originally slated at The Public Theater, 2020 and Victory Gardens Theater, 2021. Currently, Erika is developing a 10-play Katrina Cycle, including shadow/land and [hieroglyph] (San Francisco Playhouse, 2021; 2019 Kilroys List), focused on the effects of Hurricane Katrina and its state-sanctioned, man-made disaster rippling in & beyond New Orleans.
ABOUT CULLUD WATTAH
Dickerson-Despenza’s self-described “Afro-surrealist” play was set for a 2020 premiere at The Public Theater, when the pandemic shut down theatres around the world. The play embraces three generations of Black women living through the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
“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…I wrote this play specifically for black women on the margins of the margins. Poor and working class black women, single mothers, elders and widows, black women in recovery, and queer black girls.”
– Erika Dickerson-Despenza
Full of tenderness and humor, the play paints a searing portrait of a family of Black women as they navigate their way through horrific catastrophe. As described by the Public Theater, “cullud wattah blends form and bends time, diving deep into the poisonous choices of the outside world, the contamination within, and how we make the best choices for our families’ future when there are no real, present options.”
cullud wattah was developed during the Lark Play Development Center’s 2018 Van Lier New Voices Fellowship tenure (John Clinton Eisner, Artistic Director) and received its first staged reading in October 2018 at Jackalope Theatre in Chicago (Gus Menary, Artistic Director; Nora Leahy, Managing Director). cullud wattah received a Public Studio workshop production March 7 – 10, 2019 at The Public Theater, where it was scheduled to have its world premiere in July 2020 (Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director; Patrick Willingham, Executive Director) but is indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.