(June 19, 2019) NEW YORK, NY – Five exceptional American playwrights have won a total of $150,000 as the 2019 winners of The New York Community Trust’s Helen Merrill Award for Playwriting. The winners are: Carlyle Brown, Mia Chung, Aleshea Harris, Michael R. Jackson, and Daniel Alexander Jones. This $30,000 award is one of the largest and most significant prizes for playwrights in the nation.
“Each one of the Helen Merrill Award recipients has demonstrated dedication to, and exceptional talent for, live event storytelling,” said Emily Morse, the chair of the advisory committee that recommends the winners. “They are boundary breaking and category defying artists.”
The late theatrical agent Helen Merrill created a fund in The New York Community Trust to carry out her charitable legacy. Since 1999, The Trust has made 88 awards to playwrights totaling $1.8 million from the Helen Merrill Fund. The monetary awards give recipients the time and financial security to write.
“The Helen Merrill Award for Playwriting is essentially the gift of liberation in process, which is invaluable,” said Aleshea Harris, 2019 award recipient.
Born in 1918, Helen Merrill was a theatrical agent and mentor to aspiring playwrights, directors, and composers in New York City. She grew up in Cologne, Germany and moved to New York City with her family after the Nazi invasion. Starting out as a photographer, Merrill transitioned to theater in the late 1970s. She found new talent by attending off-Broadway productions. Her sharp tongue, witty sense of humor, and faith in the unconventional made her a beloved member of the New York theater scene.
“During her life, Helen represented, and would often use her personal resources to help, up-and-coming playwrights,” said Kerry McCarthy, vice president for philanthropic initiatives at The New York Community Trust. “She cared deeply about the well-being of her writers, and this fund continues her legacy of helping talented playwrights survive in a challenging industry.”
2019 AWARD RECIPIENTS
This year’s winners are a diverse and talented group of playwrights, all of whom are known for writing timely, important works that are pushing the boundaries of American theater. The winners are:
Carlyle Brown is a playwright/performer and artistic director of Carlyle Brown & Company based in Minneapolis. His plays have been produced at theaters across the U.S. and internationally. He has received numerous commissions, fellowships, and awards including a 2018 William Inge Award for Distinguished Achievement in the American Theater. A scholar and historian, Brown has been an artist in residence or visiting professor at several colleges and universities, and has worked as a museum exhibit writer and story consultant.
Mia Chung’s Catch as Catch Can premieres in Steppenwolf’s 2019-2020 season; Page 73 produced the world premiere (NYC, Fall 2018). You for Me for You premiered at The Royal Court (London), the National Theatre Company of Korea (Seoul), and Woolly Mammoth Theatre (D.C.); and is published by Bloomsbury Methuen. Her awards, commissions, and residencies include: Clubbed Thumb, EST/Sloan, Huntington Theatre, Ma-Yi, National Endowment for the Arts, New York Theatre Workshop, Playwrights’ Center, South Coast Repertory, SPACE, and New Dramatists.
Aleshea Harris is a playwright, performer, and educator. Her play Is God Is (Soho Rep.) won the 2016 Relentless Award, an Obie Award for playwriting in 2017, was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and made The Kilroys’ List of “the most recommended un- and underproduced plays by trans and female authors of color” for 2017. What to Send Up When It Goes Down, a play-pageant-ritual response to anti-blackness, had its critically-acclaimed NYC premiere in 2018, was featured in the April 2019 issue of American Theatre Magazine and was nominated for a Drama Desk award.
Michael R. Jackson holds a BFA and MFA in playwriting and Musical Theatre Writing from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. He wrote the book and lyrics for Teeth with composer and co-bookwriter Anna K. Jacobs, as well as the book, music, and lyrics for the musicals White Girl In Danger and A Strange Loop (currently receiving its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons in association with Page 73). Awards include the New Professional Theatre Writers Festival, Jonathan Larson Grant, Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award, ASCAP Harold Adamson Award, and the Whiting Award. He was a Dramatist Guild Fellow and has commissions from LCT3 and Grove Entertainment/Barbara Whitman Productions.
Daniel Alexander Jones’s plays and performance works include Black Light (Public Theater, Greenwich House Theater), Duat (Soho Rep.), An Integrator’s Manual (La MaMa), Bright Now Beyond (Salvage Vanguard), and Radiate (Soho Rep. and National Tour). His alter-ego, Jomama Jones, will release the album, Anew, in 2019. Daniel is a Guggenheim Fellow, and received the Doris Duke Artist Award, the Alpert Award in the Arts, and a Creative Capital grant. He teaches at Fordham University.
The purpose of the award is to allow playwrights to pursue their talents and simply continue on their path with financial pressures abated and no strings attached. Winners can put their funds towards childcare, rent, or other household needs.
For some winners, the award comes at critical junctures in their life.
“My wife and I were dizzy thinking about how to balance having three small kids, including a newborn, with work and life and art and dreams,” said Lloyd Suh, 2016 award recipient. “The Helen Merrill Award allowed for us to take a breath and travel through some monumental years with a real ballast.”
Suh has since completed The Chinese Lady, a play inspired by the true story of America’s first female Chinese immigrant, which premiered with Ma-Yi and Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and on Theater Row in New York City. He has three new plays under commission.
The award also offers playwrights the chance to explore new material. “I began work on a new play about a small rural Washington State town wracked with drug abuse, poverty, [and] service industry jobs,” said Aurin Squire, 2016 award recipient.
Squire’s play, Fire Season, had its world premiere at the Seattle Public Theatre in January 2019. It opened to rave reviews for the show’s vulnerability, humor, and unflinching look at the opioid epidemic. “The seeds for this willingness to dive back into the madness [of playwriting] came from the Helen Merrill prize,” Squire said.
An Advisory Committee comprised of five leaders in the field of theater recommends recipients for the Helen Merrill Award for Playwriting. The 2019 committee members include: Emily Morse of New Dramatists (Chair), Niegel Smith of The Flea Theater, Lisa McNulty of WP Theater, Ralph Peña of Ma-Yi Theater Company, and Stephanie Ybarra of Baltimore Center Stage.
Past winners include Lisa Kron, Qui Nguyen, Taylor Mac, Michael Lew, Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, and Amy Herzog.
While the list of past recipients is impressive, the committee’s composition of leaders in theater can create a profound experience for award winners.
“I was taken seriously and appreciated by…colleagues I respect and people who understand just what the work of playwriting entails,” said Ellen McLaughlin, 2017 award recipient. “It changes everything.”
ABOUT THE NEW YORK COMMUNITY TRUST
The New York Community Trust connects past, present, and future generous New Yorkers with vital nonprofits working to make a healthy, equitable, and thriving community for all. We are a public grantmaking foundation dedicated to improving the lives of residents of New York City, Westchester, and Long Island. For more information, visit us at nycommunitytrust.org.