Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama

The Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History honors the late Senator’s love of theater and his profound interest in American history. It is awarded to a new play or musical that enlists theater’s power to explore the past of the United States, to participate meaningfully in the great issues of our day through public conversation, grounded in historical understanding, that is essential to the functioning of a democracy. The Prize is a cash award of $100,000. Administered by Columbia University Libraries, the Prize was established by the Senator’s sister, Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, in consultation with the award-winning playwright, Tony Kushner.

2018 Winner

Junk by Ayad Akhtar

“Junk takes on the vexed question of inequity dividing American society. It trenchantly examines the financial behavior and the flawed system of thought in the 1980s that paved the way for the polarized world in which we now live—manufacturing debt. In doing so, it speaks directly to the aims of the prize, enlisting theater’s power to explore America’s past, and through that, speak to our present, so crucial to the health of our democracy.”

2017 Winner

A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: A Radical Fairy Realness Ritual by Taylor Mac

“A vast, immersive, subversive, audacious and outrageous theater experience, Mac’s and Ray’s piece employs a variety of performance techniques to illuminate and explore our country’s history as seen through the lens of its popular music. This piece shows, in Mac’s words, how ‘in America, the oppressor is forgiven but the outsider is vilified.’”

2016 Winner

Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda

"Out of an extraordinary group of plays that brilliantly illuminate aspects of American history, the committee voted unanimously to award the Edward M. Kennedy prize to Hamilton. The committee felt that the spirit of the award is exemplified in this play. It enlists theater’s power to explore the past of the United States, participating meaningfully in the great issues of our day and grounded in the historical understanding that is essential to the functioning of a democracy. Technically so proficient, historically so sound, artistically so groundbreaking, Hamilton is both inspired by and celebrates the evolving history of the United States, of hip-hop, and of the musical theater."

2015 Winner

Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 by Suzan-Lori Parks

"The jury deeply admires all five of this year’s nominated works and was struck by the fact that each in its own way addresses, with eloquence and insight, the as-yet-unhealed traumas brought on by the legacy of American slavery. From amongst this distinguished group, the jury awards the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History to Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 by Suzan-Lori Parks.  The story of Hero, a slave who chooses to fight on behalf of the Confederacy, feels fresh and alive, shining new light on the complicated nature of freedom. In its unflinching treatment of homecoming, betrayal and heroism, Father Comes Home from the Wars announces itself as an iconic work that challenges and engages Western theatrical tradition while providing a compelling contribution to the urgent American conversation about race."

2014 Winner

Detroit ’67 by Dominique Morisseau

"This year’s jury has unanimously chosen to award the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama inspired by American History to Detroit ’67 by Dominique Morisseau. The first in a 3-play cycle about her hometown Detroit, the play explores an explosive and decisive moment in a great American city. The jury was completely drawn into the world of Detroit ’67, whose  compelling characters struggle with racial tension and economic instability. The jury also felt strongly that the play powerfully exemplifies the goals of the Kennedy Prize. Detroit ’67 is a work grounded in historical understanding that also comments meaningfully on the pressing issues of our day."

2013 Winners

All the Way by Robert Schenkkan and The Body of an American by Dan O’Brien

"The judges of the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History have unanimously voted to divide this year´s award between two exceptionally deserving plays: Dan O´Brien´s The Body of an American and Robert Schenkkan´s All the Way.  Each dramatist will be awarded $50,000.

All the Way vividly captures a period of great turmoil and consequence in American history, from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 through Election Night, 1964.  It´s a sprawling drama, its unfolding story told by many of those who shaped the history of our nation at this critical moment, including Martin Luther King, Hubert Humphrey, J. Edgar Hoover, and most of all, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who deftly steers a Civil Rights Bill through a divided Congress.

The Body of an American speaks to a more recent moment in our history, when a single, stark photograph–of the body of an American soldier dragged from the wreck of a Blackhawk through the streets of Mogadishu–reshaped the course of global events.  In powerful, theatrical language, Dan O’Brien explores the ethical and personal consequences of Paul Watson’s photograph, as well as the interplay between political upheaval and the experience of trauma in an age saturated by images and information.

Both plays exemplify the mission of the Kennedy prize, participating in meaningful ways “in the great issues of our day through the public conversation, grounded in historical understanding, that is essential to the functioning of a democracy.” It was the unanimous decision of the committee to honor two plays this year to represent the broad and exciting spectrum of work the award might encourage."

Plays and musicals that have received a commercial or non-profit professional production are eligible. The playwright or credited musical writing team (composer, lyricist, and book writer) must currently reside and must have lived for at least the two previous years in the United States. Works are eligible for the Prize for the calendar year in which they were first professionally produced and will remain eligible for two calendar years thereafter.

Applications are not accepted.  Nominations are made annually by a group of twenty nominators, appointed by the Board of Governors. The list of nominators is kept confidential but reflects regional, cultural, and aesthetic diversity. Their lists are submitted to a panel of judges who will determine the winning play or musical for a given year. The judges consist of seven playwrights, musical theater writers, and scholars, appointed annually by the Board of Governors. The names of the judges are kept confidential until the announcement of the winning work is made.

  • Mandy Hackett

    Associate Artistic Director,
    The Public Theater
    New York, NY

  • Jean Howard

    George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities
    and Chair, Department of English and Comparative Literature,
    Columbia University

  • Alice Kessler-Harris

    R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History in Honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower,
    Columbia University

  • Tony Kushner

    Pulitzer Prize Winning Playwright

  • Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith

    Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient

  • Amanda Smith


All questions and comments should be directed to kennedyprize@columbia.edu.