On a week in which playwright Suzan-Lori Parks' triology Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) won the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired By American History, I couldn't help but notice a bit of politically-infused irony, given recent developments on Capitol Hill. So before we take a closer look at this $100,000 prize — an impressive sum for just one playwright, mind you — I'd like to first briefly touch on the irony.
On March 4, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that questions if the federal government can legally hand out health care subsidies in the 34 states that have opted out of creating their own exchanges as part of the Affordable Care Act. If the court sides with the plaintiffs, President Obama's signature piece of legislation will be dealt a near-fatal blow.
Therein lies the irony. Kennedy, who spent his career promoting affordable health care, passed away in January 2010, paving the way for Republican Scott Brown, who campaigned heavily against the law. We know what happened next.
And so, in just one week, we see two sides of the Senator's legacy playing out. The first is the lucrative playwriting prize, which was established by Kennedy's sister, Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, in consultation with playwright Tony Kushner; it is given every year through Columbia University. The second is a health care legacy that's still without closure, whose complexion and historical reach will soon be debated in the halls of the Supreme Court.
Don't worry, we'll focus on the former.
Parks' winning play traces the journey of a slave named Hero, his wife Penny, and the best friend he betrayed, Homer. Spanning a total of three hours, the plays premiered last fall at New York's Public Theater and is the initial trio in a planned nine-play cycle. It's ambitious stuff, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise. The prize honors a new play or musical that explores the United States' past and deals with "great issues of our day."
The prize focuses on completed works — only plays and musicals that have received a commercial or nonprofit professional production are eligible. Nominations are made annually by a group of twenty nominators, appointed by the Board of Governors. Their lists are submitted to a panel of judges who determine the winning play or musical for a given year. The judges this year included playwright Kristoffer Diaz, playwright and director Stephen Adly Guirgis, playwright David Henry Hwang and librettist John Weidman.
Ultimately, the fate of Senator Kennedy's two domestic legacies — a theater prize for playwriting excellence and affordable health care — now rest in the hands of two very different panels of judges.