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Five Playwrights Receive 2022 Helen Merrill Awards

Sponsored by the New York Community Trust, five playwrights will be awarded a $30,000 cash prize.

NEW YORK CITY: The New York Community Trust has selected five playwrights as recipients of the 2022 Helen Merrill Award for Playwriting. This year’s recipients are Gethsemane Herron, Zora Howard, C.A. Johnson, Michelle J. Rodriguez, and Cori Thomas.

Established by the late theatrical agent as a way to help playwrights pursue their art with less financial pressure, the Helen Merrill Award for Playwriting is one of the nation’s largest and most significant prizes for playwrights. Since 1999, 103 writers have been selected for the awards and received a total of $2.29 million. This year’s recipients will receive an unrestricted award of $30,000 cash to provide a critical financial lifeline as they pursue their writing with fewer financial obstacles due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  

“Thanks to the generosity of donors like Helen Merrill, and an outstanding committee of theater leaders who have their fingers on the pulse of this industry, The New York Community Trust is able to make substantial awards to talented playwrights,” said the program officer for arts and culture at the Trust, Salem Tsegaye in a statement. “We hope these awards provide a boost of confidence and a little freedom and flexibility for artists to continue their creative pursuits on their own terms.” 

One of this year’s recipients, Michelle J. Rodriguez said in a statement, “So many people have made all of this possible. When I got this award and saw who was on the panel, it made me realize that people really are watching out for me and for my career.” 

This year’s Helen Merrill advisory committee members were Lisa McNulty, Ralph Peña, Niegel Smith, Lloyd Suh, and Stephanie Ybarra.

In 2020 and 2021, the award advisory committee expanded the number of recipients in response to the financial challenges caused by theatre closures. Past recipient Michael R. Jackson was preparing for the off-Broadway launch of A Strange Loop when he received his 2019 Helen Merrill Award. Additionally, previous award winners have subsequently earned Obie Awards, Guggenheim Fellowships, and Pulitzer Prizes, as well as built careers on and off Broadway.

Gethsemane Herron is a playwright from Washington, D.C. and is currently a resident artist with Ars Nova’s Play Group, a 2020-2022 member of the WP Lab, a 2021-2022 Jerome Fellow, and a 2022-2023 Many Voices Fellow at the Playwright’s Center. Herron is currently working on a commission for Mosaic Theater Company. She holds an MFA from Columbia University.  

Zora Howard is a writer and performer from Harlem, N.Y. Howard is the inaugural Judith Champion Fellow at Manhattan Theatre Club and a 2022 Lilly Award recipient. Howard’s plays include STEW (2021 Pulitzer Prize Finalist; Page 73 Productions), THE MASTER’S TOOLS (Williamstown Theater Festival) and BUST (2022 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize finalist). Currently she is working on commissions from Seattle Rep, Manhattan Theatre Club, and Wessex Grove

C.A. Johnson is a Brooklyn-based playwright who originally hails from Louisiana. Some of Johnson’s plays include, All the Natalie Portmans (MCC Theater), Thirst (2017 Kilroys List, Contemporary American Theater Festival) and An American Feast (NYU Playwrights Horizons Theater School). She was previously a Tow Playwright in Residence at MCC Theater, a 2018 P73 Playwriting Fellow, and the Lark’s 2016-17 New York Community Trust Van Lier Fellow. Johnson holds a BA from Smith College and an MFA from NYU. 

Michelle J. “Micha” Rodriguez is currently working on commissions from Portland Center Stage, Baltimore Center Stage, and Black Cap Productions. She has presented Visions (Joe’s Pub), J. Lo at the Dance Call (Ars Nova), and East o’ West o’! (Ars Nova, Steppenwolf). Rodriguez was a finalist for National Public Radio’s 2018 Tiny Desk Contest. She also received a 2022 grant from the NYC Women’s Fund for Media, Music and Theater and was a New York Community Trust Van Lier Fellow at Ars Nova in its Makers Lab. Rodriguez holds a B.A. from Williams College.  

Cori Thomas is a New Dramatists Resident and a Mellon Foundation Playwright-in-Residence at WP Theater. She has won the American Theater Critics Osborn Award for Best New Play, the Lippman Family New Frontier Award, and the Edgerton Foundation Prize and is a two- time Theodore Ward Prize winner. Her plays include Lockdown, When January Feels Like Summer, Citizen’s Market, My Secret Language of Wishes, and the Liberian Legacy Trilogy. Thomas has also written an original screenplay about Nelson Mandela and Percy Yutar for HBO Films and Tribeca Productions. 

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