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Erika Dickerson-Despenza. (Photo by Joey Stocks)

Erika Dickerson-Despenza Wins 2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize

Her play ‘cullud wattah’ is honored, with Kimber Lee’s ‘The Water Palace’ and Ife Olujobi’s ‘Jordans’ also specially commended.

NEW YORK CITY: The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize has announced cullud wattah by Erika Dickerson-Despenza as the winner of its 2021 playwriting award during a virtual ceremony that was streamed on YouTube. This year’s award includes a cash prize of $25,000 and a signed print by renowned artist Willem de Kooning created especially for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.

“As a playwright, I aspire to be a delicate sculptor of everyday horrors,” said Dickerson-Despenza, who dedicated the honor to Ntozake Shange during the ceremony. “I wrote cullud wattah to explore the politics of disgust, shame, and refusal by highlighting the rupture of government intervention at the intersection of capitalism and environmental racism. The play examines the impact of these horrors so routinely visited upon dispossessed peoples, namely Black women. I wrote this play specifically for Black women on the margins of the margins—poor and working-class Black women, single mothers, elders and widows, Black women in recovery, and young, queer Black girls. To be a woman amongst other dynamic women honored for our work is a gift.”

Dickerson-Despenza’s play centers on the Flint water crisis, following a third generation General Motors employee as her sister seeks justice and restitution for lead poisoning, revealing a toxic entanglement between the city and its most powerful industry. Corrosive memories and secrets arise as the family is forced to confront the cost of survival.

“When I say that this play hit me like a train, like a ton of bricks—I don’t think I slept for three weeks after reading this play,” said award judge Paapa Essiedu during the ceremony, calling the play a classic of today and for years to come. “This play pretty much sings, screams, rages, weeps, and literally dances through what is quite a difficult subject matter, but always does it with such a clarity of thought and lightness of touch and sense of humor. Through its intimate and thoughtful scenes, we definitely feel what it’s like to live in an America that does not care about nor protect its own people. But Erika Dickerson-Despenza makes sure that we do care, that we do protect, that we do feel, that we do see, and that we will never, never forget.”

The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize is awarded to women+ playwrights and chosen from an international group of over 160 plays. This year’s finalists, who all receive an award of $5,000, included Glace Chase, Triple X; Miranda Rose Hall, A Play for the Living in the Time of Extinction; Dawn King, The Trials; Kimber Lee, The Water Palace; Janice Okoh, The Gift; Ife Olujobi, Jordans; Frances Poet, Maggie May; Jiehae Park, The Aves; and Beth Steel, The House of Shades. A play can also be honored with a special commendation of $10,000 at the discretion of the judges. This year, Lee and Olujobi were awarded with special commendations, marking the first time two special commendations were given in the same year.

This year’s international panel of judges included Natalie Abrahami, Paapa Essiedu, Bunny Christie, Lileana Blain-Cruz, Jason Butler Harner, and Seema Sueko.

The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, founded in 1978 and named for the American author and actor, promotes the high standards, creativity, and vitality that were characteristic of Blackburn’s life. More than 470 plays have been honored as finalists, many going on to win Olivier, Lilly, Evening Standard, and Tony Awards for Best Play. Ten Finalist plays have subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.

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