SARASOTA, FLA.: Theatre artist and director Shariffa Ali has been selected as the 2022 recipient of the Hermitage Major Theater Award (HMTA). This national jury-selected prize, established by the Hermitage last year with generous support from Flora Major and the Kutya Major Foundation, offers one of the largest nonprofit theatre commissions in the country. Ali will receive a cash prize of $35,000, as well as a residency at the Hermitage on Manasota Key, and a developmental workshop in a major arts capital such as New York, Chicago, or London in the fall of 2023.
Born in Kenya and raised in South Africa, Shariffa Chelimo Ali is an international theatremaker, creative leader, director, and educator committed to advancing radical change through the power of art and activism. Ali’s past theatrical productions as a director include Eclipsed, Detroit ’67, Intimate Apparel, We Are Proud to Present…, and the original musical We Were Everywhere. She has worked as an arts administrator at the Public Theater and the New Group, and she has taught at New York University, Brooklyn College, Yale, and Princeton. She is the second recipient of the HMTA, which was first awarded in 2021 to playwright and filmmaker Radha Blank. Blank’s HMTA commission is currently in development, with a workshop anticipated later this year in New York.
“It is surreal and the most gratifying and pleasant surprise to be honored in this way by artists whose work has been a compass in my own upbringing as a theatremaker,” said Ali in a statement. “The fact that they support my art and wish to carve out space for myself and my collaborator Vuyo Sotashe with this project is a huge honor. It is extremely surprising, humbling, and life-affirming. This award will alter the course of my life; it is a true game changer.”
The Hermitage Major Theater Award was established in 2021 to recognize a playwright or theatre artist with a commission to create a new, original, and impactful piece of theatre. In addition to the commission, the recipient of the annual HMTA will receive six weeks of residency at the Hermitage’s historic beachfront campus to develop the new work, as well as a reading or workshop in a leading arts and cultural center. This year’s commission is expected to receive its development workshop in the fall of 2023. HMTA winners are nominated and selected by a jury of nationally recognized arts leaders in the field. The 2022 HMTA Award Committee included Lynn Nottage, David Henry Hwang, and Regina Taylor.
In describing her intended HMTA commission, Ali writes: “Despite the homophobia and transphobia inherent in small-town South Africa, a middle school choir, their principal, and their parents make an agreement to disguise the town’s most talented and beloved singer Vuyo (he/they) as a girl in order to have him sing as a female soloist in a national choir competition. As Vuyo increasingly feels at home in this new role as a female soloist, they begin a journey that will see them come to reckon with identity, community, and finding a voice of truth.” Vuyo is a friend and collaborator of this year’s HMTA recipient, so Ali is particularly passionate about capturing the heart and soul of her friend’s true story through this commission. “It is my hope that Vuyo’s remarkable story and lessons of healing and forging community can be a healing force for us all.”
Three distinguished finalists for the 2022 Hermitage Major Theater Award include Vanessa German, a citizen artist working across sculpture, performance, communal rituals, immersive installation, and photography; Jonathan McCrory, an Obie Award-winning director and producer; and José Rivera, an Obie Award winner and Oscar-nominated writer. Each will receive a Hermitage residency, in addition to a cash prize of $1,000.
In addition to this newly-created commission, the Hermitage Artist Retreat annually awards the Hermitage Greenfield Prize (HGP), a $30,000 commission that rotates each year between the disciplines of music, theatre, and visual art. Past recipients in theatre have included Aleshea Harris, Martyna Majok, Nilo Cruz, John Guare, and Craig Lucas.
The Hermitage hosts artists on its Gulf Coast Manasota Key campus for residencies, where artists from around the world and across multiple disciplines create and develop new works of theatre, music, visual art, literature, dance, and more. As part of their residencies, Hermitage Fellows participate in free community programs, offering audiences in the region a unique opportunity to engage with some of the world’s leading artists and to get an authentic “sneak peek” into projects before their works go on to major theatres, galleries, concert halls, and museums around the world. These free and innovative programs include performances, lectures, readings, interactive experiences, open studios, school programs, teacher workshops, and more, serving thousands in the community each year. The Hermitage is the only major arts organization in Florida’s Gulf Coast region exclusively committed to supporting the development and creation of new work across all artistic disciplines. As of 2019, the Hermitage Artist Retreat had a budget of approximately $576,000.
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