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American Shakespeare Center Introduces the Bard’s New Contemporaries

Playwrights Anchuli Felicia King and Emma Whipday’s works, inspired by ‘Othello’ and ‘Cymbeline,’ respectively, will be produced.

STAUNTON, VA.: American Shakespeare Center (ASC) has announced the playwrights and plays selected for the second round of the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries (SNC) initiative. The program aims to produce 38 plays inspired by and in conversation with Shakespeare’s canon. The winners are Anchuli Felicia King’s Keene and Emma Whipday’s The Defamation of Cicely Lee. Each playwright will receive a $25,000 award, and the plays will be produced along with the partnering Shakespeare play in 2020.

Emma Whipday and Anchuli Felicia King.

“The SNC initiative is all about inviting contemporary authors and new voices into the classical arena,” said artistic director Ethan McSweeny in a statement. “Both of this year’s winners have found brilliant and creative ways to engage with their referent Shakespeare play, with ASC’s embrace of Shakespearean performance conditions on our Blackfriars stage, and with contemporary issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Keene and The Defamation of Cicely Lee will join our 2019 SNC recipients Anne Page Hates Fun by Amy E. Witting and 16 Winters, or The Bear’s Tale by Mary Elizabeth Hamilton as the core of our expanding new canon.”

King and Whipday’s works were selected from a pool of more than 150 submissions inspired by choice of four titles: Henry IV, Part 2; Othello; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; or Cymbeline.

Keene, inspired by Othello, follows a Japanese musicologist who becomes infatuated with a Ph.D. student she meets at a Shakespeare conference. Dreams start to merge with reality as the student pursues a thesis on Ira Aldridge, the first Black man to play Othello.

The Defamation of Cicely Lee was written in response to Cymbeline. The play is set in 1611 when Shakespeare’s latest play was traveling from London to Northern England, just as a maidservant in Corbridge is accused of committing adultery with her former master. Will her voice be heard?

SNC has also announced three additional titles that were shortlisted for the initiative. Crooked Ways by Elizabeth Hudleston, a partner to Henry IV, Part 2; Votaress by Caitlin Partridge, a response to A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and Desdemona’s Child (blood cry) by Caridad Svich, inspired by Othello.

“The two selected plays and three additional shortlist plays showcase how deep the application pool was,” said literary manager Anne G. Morgan in a statement. “The varied perspectives, skillful language, and compelling stories show us how much artistic potential this project is tapping into. We are pleased to lend our voice in support of these plays and look forward to seeing more of the innovative ways in which today’s writers are engaging with Shakespeare’s work when we open the next application cycle in June and consider six great Shakespeare titles as jumping off points.”

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