By AARON KRAUSE
Nicole Brooks describes herself as a playwright who “likes to shove a lot of words into their text.”
But recently, Brooks found herself at a loss for words. That’s because Brooks was giving her acceptance speech after winning the 2021 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) New Play Award. The annual honor carries a $25,000 cash prize. Specifically, the award recognizes an outstanding script that premiered professionally outside New York City during 2020, pre-pandemic.
Brooks earned the award for her new play, Her Honor, Jayne Byrne. The piece, set in 1981, chronicles a chapter of Chicago history when Byrne, the city’s first female mayor, briefly moved into the Cabrini-Green housing project. Also, the play gives voice to various stakeholders. They include Cabrini-Green residents, City Hall flaks, members of the press, activists, and Byrne herself.
“This play is a love letter to this wonderful city,” she said, referring to Chicago. Brooks added that it’s a “city that breaks my heart and a city that fills my heart, a city that has made me into a writer.”
And now, Brooks is an award-winning writer. However, she said she could not have accomplished her feat without others’ help.
“I’d like to thank every single person that put their hands on the deck, read my words, considered my thoughts, and gave me this chance,” Brooks said. “We all know that writing is re-writing. And I did a lot of it and I could not have done that by myself.”
Her Honor, Jayne Byrne was one of five finalists for the Steinberg/ACTA honor. For 2020, critics considered theater pieces that received in-person productions during January, February, and March of that year.
A member of ATCA’s new play committee praised Her Honor, Jayne Byrne with the following words: “Brooks brings this chapter of history to vivid life.” Also, the play “toggles so deftly between personal and political tragedy,” while “every angle gets an airing, but not in a way that makes the reader feel like she’s ticking off boxes.” As for the dialogue, it is “smart, fast, and very Chicago.”
Her Honor, Jayne Bryne premiered at Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago. Brooks is an ensemble member with the company.
In her speech, Brooks sought to encourage her fellow playwrights. To “all of the playwrights who don’t have fancy agents, may not have a fancy institution backing you – or who might even have a hard time getting someone to read your work to get some feedback. I just want to say that I feel you, I see you, and I will always lock arms with you. You’re the best we’ve got.”
While Brooks won the 2021 ATCA/Steinberg award, other artists earned 2021 Steinberg/ATCA citations. To be specific, they are khat knotahaiku, Jason Narducy, and Brett Neveu. Each citation carries a $7,500 cash prize.
knotahaiku’s citation is in honor of his play, Graveyard Shift, produced by Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. In the play, the worlds of an Illinois couple and a small-town police officer collide. A critic remarked: “Here’s a play that’s true to our moment: It stares the ugliness in the face, while challenging us to move beyond easy, virtue-signaling posturing.” Also, “the writing is gorgeous, the dialogue is real, and the cross cutting is deftly handled.”
Meanwhile, Narducy wrote the music and lyrics, and Neveu penned the book for the musical, Verboten. The piece, set in 1983, focuses on a band of teenagers who channel their homelife frustrations into punk music. A critic opined: “The characters are real and engaging. The dialogue and lyrics are funny and honest” and “the music is great, too.” Verboten premiered at The House Theatre in Chicago.
With an annual prize total of $40,000, Steinberg/ATCA is one of the largest national new play award programs. ATCA (https://americantheatrecritics.org) began honoring new plays produced at regional theaters outside New York City in 1977.
The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust has funded the award since 2000. Harold Steinberg created the trust in 1986 on behalf of himself and his late wife. The trust’s primary mission is to support the American theater. Over the years, it has provided grants totaling millions of dollars for new productions of American plays and educational programs for those who may not ordinarily experience live theater.
Douglas Williams, for his play, SHIP, received ATCA’s 2021 M. Elizabeth Osborn Award. The organization presents the honor in memory of critic, director, educator, and new play advocate M. Elizabeth “Betty” Osborn (1941-1993). The prize recognizes the work of a playwright whose works have not received a major production, such as a Broadway or Off-Broadway engagement. Also, the honor goes to a playwright who has not received major national awards. The Osborn Award carries a $1,000 cash prize.
SHIP received its world premiere production at Azuka Theatre in Philadelphia, where Williams is playwright in residence. In SHIP, a young woman returns from rehab to her seaside Connecticut hometown. There, she becomes intent on scoring the most coveted job available: tour guide at the local maritime museum. Also, the character harbors an infatuation with a former classmate who once attempted to grow the world’s longest fingernails. A critic remarked: Finding that balance of quirkiness and believable humanity can be difficult. The playwright pulls it off here in a funny and poignant story about two stuck young people.”
Williams reacted to his award by saying: “What an exciting surprise in a year where it’s been odd being a playwright. My thanks to Azuka just for being a home for new plays.”
Also, during her acceptance speech, Brooks said, “It’s so important that we have folks out there that are supporting new work.”