Pun Bundhu, Kelly McAndrew, & Todd Lawson in Cory Hinkle’s This Quintessence of Dust. Photo by Ben Brymer.
By Kathi E. B. Ellis
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Kathi E. B. Ellis. All rights reserved
Saturday evening saw Actors Theatre of Louisville’s theatres and lobby bursting with theatre practitioners, critics, and audiences as the official final evening of the Humana Festival kicked in with the popular The Ten-Minute Plays and the American Theatre Critics Association’s prestigious Osborn and Steinberg/ACTA Awards.
With the Pamela Brown Auditorium fuller than it has been throughout this year’s festival, ATL Artistic Director Les Waters took to the stage to welcome everyone. Before introducing Lou Harry, Chair of ATCA’s New Play Reading Committee, Waters recognized retiring Associate Director Zan Sawyer-Dailey for her 31 years at ATL. The gathered crowd gave Sawyer-Dailey a spontaneous standing ovation.
Waters’ introduction included the fact that in its 40 years, the Humana Festival of New American Plays has produced works by 570 playwrights. This was a perfect segue into announcing the winners of the ATCA awards. Mr. Harry took to the stage to remind the audience of the longevity of the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award (since 1993) and the seventeen-year history of The Harold & Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust’s funding the ATCA award for Outstanding New Play produced outside New York.
The winner of this year’s Osborn Award, for the work of a playwright whose work has not yet achieved national stature, is the previously announced Mississippi Goddamn by Jonathan Norton. Premiering at the South Dallas Cultural Center, Norton focuses on the neighbors of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers during those tumultuous times. Norton gave an exuberant speech acknowledging the many people who helped get his script into production.
Harry moved on to the Steinberg/ACTA Award, noting that it carries with it the largest cash awards in the country as he welcomed Jim Steinberg to the stage. The 19-strong ATCA committee read 25 submitted plays this year. The six finalists were, in alphabetical order:
Steven Dietz’s Bloomsday
Samuel D. Hunters’ Clarkston
Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone
Jonathan Norton’s Mississippi Goddamn
Lynn Nottage’s Sweat
Jen Silverman’s The Dangerous House of Pretty MBane
Two citations, each carrying a $7,500 award, went to Steven Dietz’s Bloomsday and Jen Silverman’s The Dangerous House of Pretty MBane. Dietz spoke passionately about the need for producers to take risks on young playwrights and on new plays, citing his more than 30 years of outrageously good fortune as a playwright and the bright future of the next generation of playwrights. Silverman, marking her second year as a Humana Festival playwright, confirmed the importance of having an artistic home to which to return.
This year’s Steinberg/ATCA Award was won by Vietgone, written by Qui Nguyen, who received the accompanying $25,000. His acceptance speech set the house rippling with laughter and touched on the capacity of theatre to create space for change.
Returning to the business of the festival productions, the three winners of ATL’s national ten-minute play contest then took to the stage.
First up was Cory Hinkle’s This Quintessence of Dust, a quirkily gruesome imagining of what happens when three people with awkwardly intertwining histories end up in the same survival shelter after a breakdown in society. The Hamlet quote, when it comes, results in a well-earned laugh.
Coffee Break, by Tasha Gordon-Solmon, is a charmingly comedic, as well as on-point, reflection of the stresses and terrors of imagining whether a casual acquaintance may or may not be attracted to you. The hyper conversation between the two women exploring this possibility is interspersed with hilariously sweet encounters between inanimate couples: a table and a chair, a scone and a plate, and two napkins. The final twist at the end brings an unpleasant reality crashing in.
Finishing the evening was the cheekily titled Trudy, Carolyn, Martha, and Regina Travel to Outer Space and Have a Pretty Terrible Time There, written by current ATL intern James Kennedy. Paying homage to multiple sci-fi TV tropes, Kennedy also skewers these clichés.
Of course, one of the fun aspects of “the Tens” is seeing actors who have been seen in the other festival plays; and knowing laughs throughout the shows demonstrated once again the audience’s enjoyment of seeing actors they’ve come to identify with step into roles that either complement what has already been seen or play against the type they’ve most recently essayed.
The final curtain is also an invitation to spill out into the lobbies of the ATL complex to relive the plays, network with friends and colleagues – and make plans for next year’s Humana!
Kathi E.B. Ellis is an associate member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and a member of Lincoln Center and DirectorsLabChicago. She has attended the La MaMa Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy and is featured in Southern Artistry, an online registry of outstanding southern artists. Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for South Florida theatre’s Carbonell Award. Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and part of ShoeString Productions, an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS’s textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.