Columbia University Announces Winners of First Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History

The judges voted unanimously to divide this year’s award between two exceptionally deserving works. Both plays exemplify the mission of the prize by engaging “the great issues of our day through the public conversation, grounded in historical understanding that is essential to the functioning of a democracy.”

Ambassador Smith created the prize to honor the life and legacy of her brother, the late senator from Massachusetts. The prize will be announced each year on Ted Kennedy’s birthday, February 22.

“We are very pleased and excited about this award in Ted’s name,” she said. “My brother loved the arts — museums, books, the performing arts. Music was perhaps dearest to him, but he and I shared an enjoyment of theater — especially, for Teddy, musical theater. He was also a great student of American history and made it come alive for many of us in the Kennedy family. He was much beloved by all the family and he would be very pleased by this tribute.”

All the Way, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Schenkkan, depicts a period of great turmoil and consequence in American history, from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 through election night in 1964. Its story is told by many of those who shaped that year’s critical moments, including Martin Luther King, Hubert H. Humphrey, J. Edgar Hoover, and most of all, President Lyndon B. Johnson, who deftly guides landmark civil rights legislation through a divided Congress. All the Way premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012.

Dan O’Brien’s The Body of an American speaks to a more recent moment in history, when a single, stark photograph — that of the body of an American soldier dragged from the wreckage of a Blackhawk helicopter through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 — by photographer Paul Watson reshaped the course of global events. In powerful, theatrical language, O’Brien explores the ethical and personal consequences of Watson’s photograph, as well as the interplay between political upheaval and the experience of trauma in an age saturated by images and information. The Body of an American premiered at Portland Center Stage in 2012.

Each playwright will receive an award of $50,000, and the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia University Libraries will work with both recipients to create websites featuring study and teaching guides, historical research, and scholarly discussions and interpretations of the plays. The websites will be available to any theater artist, teacher or class studying the works with the intent of expanding understanding of the playwright’s work and career.

“Columbia University Libraries is honored to administer this first year of the EMK Prize and is thrilled to be able to recognize two outstanding contributions to the American theater,” said James Neal, Columbia’s vice president for information services and University Librarian. “The websites that the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning builds for the winning plays will be powerful educational tools for teachers and students at schools and colleges all over the world.”

Plays and musicals which received their first professional productions in 2012 were eligible for the EMK Prize. The other finalists, announced last December, were Hurt Village by Katori Hall, Party People by UNIVERSES, and Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo. The judges for the inaugural EMK Prize were Carol Becker, dean of Columbia University School of the Arts (non-voting member); James McPherson, George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History, Emeritus at Princeton University; Itamar Moses, playwright and author; Lynn Nottage, playwright; Joshua Schmidt, composer and sound designer; James Shapiro, Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University; Diana Son, playwright; and Brian Yorkey, playwright, lyricist and theater director. The eight-person panel of voting judges is selected each year from a pool of playwrights, musical theater writers, lyricists, composers, scholars of literature, American history or political science, and will include each year Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger.

The size of the award places the EMK Prize among the most generous given for dramatic writing, and indeed for writing in America, while the commitment to an in-depth and publicly accessible examination and exploration of content makes the prize unique among dramatic and literary awards.

The EMK Prize has potential for contributing to an elevation of the standards of precision, intellectual rigor and seriousness with which dramatic literature is approached by theater artists, audiences, educators, students and critics. Ambassador Smith, in honor of her late brother, hopes that the prize will galvanize a new and vigorous exploration of American history and the institutions of American politics among dramatists and creators of musical theater.

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