SARASOTA COUNTY, FLA.: Andy Sandberg, artistic director and CEO of the Hermitage Artist Retreat, has announced that composer and theatre artist Imani Uzuri has been selected as the third recipient of the Hermitage Major Theater Award (HMTA). This national jury-selected prize, established by the Hermitage in 2021 with generous support from the Kutya Major Foundation, offers one of the largest nonprofit theatre commissions in the country. Uzuri will receive a cash prize of $35,000 toward the development of a new work of theatre, as well as a residency at the Hermitage’s site in Florida and a developmental workshop in a major arts capital in fall 2024.
Uzuri, raised in rural North Carolina, is an award-winning composer, vocalist, experimental librettist, improviser, and lyricist. “I am ebullient, in awe, and overwhelmed with joy and gratitude!” she enthused in a statement. “I am also thrilled that the Hermitage is committed to ecology, preservation, and community. These are values that are significantly important to me as an artist. Receiving this phenomenal award and residency will enhance my artistic life immeasurably and transform the landscape of my theater career.”
The three distinguished finalists for the HMTA include Nissy Aya, a playwright, educator, and cultural worker; AnnMarie Milazzo, a Tony- and Grammy-nominated vocal designer, orchestrator, and composer; and Daniel J. Watts, a Tony-nominated actor and theatre artist. Each has been awarded a Hermitage residency and fellowship, in addition to a cash prize of $1,000.
HMTA winners and finalists are nominated and selected by a jury of nationally recognized arts leaders in the field of theatre. This year’s HMTA Award Committee included Christopher Burney, a member of the Hermitage Curatorial Council and the outgoing artistic director of New York Stage and Film; Patricia McGregor, an acclaimed director and the new artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop; and Jeanine Tesori, a Hermitage alumna and the Tony-winning composer of Fun Home, Kimberly Akimbo, and Caroline, or Change.
“Amid four extraordinary and worthy finalists, Imani Uzuri revealed herself to be a passionate theatre artist who impressed the Award Committee with her heartfelt and inspired vision,” said Hermitage artistic director and CEO Andy Sandberg. “We are honored to support Imani as she creates through this commission a compelling and ambitious new musical—a piece that aspires to not only entertain but to build community.”
Uzuri composes, performs, and creates interdisciplinary works, including concerts, ritual performances, albums, sound art installations, and compositions for chamber ensembles, film, voice, and theatre, often dealing with themes of ancestral memory, magical realism, liminality, haunting, Black American vernacular culture, spirituality, and landscape.
In a statement, Uzuri described Lighthouse of the Singing Birds, her intended HMTA commission, for which she will be writing original music, lyrics, and book, as “an immersive magical realist work of musical theatre centering a young Black girl on the precipice of her 13th birthday—a special one. She lives in an enchanted lighthouse and bird sanctuary on a small island (populated with elusive wild horses) surrounded by a Sound with a purple beach (made so by coral) off the coast of the Outerbanks in rural North Carolina with her beloved grandmother (matriarch and head lighthouse keeper) and her intergenerational, quirky extended family of artists, including quilters, singers, moonshiners, and instrument makers.”
Previous recipients of the HMTA have included playwright and screenwriter Madeleine George and theateremaker and director Shariffa Ali. Their respective commissions are expected to receive developmental workshops in the fall of 2023.
In addition to this newly created commission, the Hermitage Artist Retreat annually awards the prestigious jury-selected Hermitage Greenfield Prize (HGP), a $30,000 commission that rotates each year between the disciplines of music, theatre, and visual art. Past recipients in theater have included Aleshea Harris (2021), Martyna Majok (2018), Nilo Cruz (2015), John Guare (2012), and Craig Lucas (2009).
The Hermitage hosts artists on its Gulf Coast Manasota Key campus for multi-week residencies, where diverse and accomplished 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 a “sneak peek” into extraordinary projects and artistic minds before their works go on to major theatres, galleries, concert halls, and museums around the world.
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