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Clockwise from top left: Donnetta Lavinia Gray, Robert Schenkkan, Mansa Ra, and Lauren Gunderson.

Alabama Shakes Commissions Writers to Create New Southern Canon

The ambitious program, slated to seed 22 new plays, has announced its first 4 commissioned writers: Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Robert Schenkkan, Mansa Ra, and Lauren Gunderson.

MONTGOMERY, ALA.: Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s (ASF) ambitious New Southern Canon, a multi-year commitment to developing 22 new plays about transformative moments in the South, has announced its first four commissioned playwrights. They include Pulitzer and Tony winner Robert Schenkkan, Brooklyn-based playwright-actor Donnetta Lavinia Grays, the prolific and much-producd Lauren Gunderson, and Afrofuturist writer Mansa Ra

“The vision of the Southern Writers Festival is to grow the Southern theatre canon with stories steeped in specificity and reflective of the diversity of the region yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” said Rick Dildine, artistic director of ASF, in a statement. “By telling the stories of our people and dramatizing our shared histories and unique narratives, we give voice to the communities of people who have called the South home for hundreds of years.”

Dildine expanded the scope of ASF’s Southern Writers Project, which originated in 1991 and includes nearly 100 works to date, into a fully realized festival of new works and the largest and most ambitious commissioning program in the South. The enhanced program was announced in 2018 following a regional tour with Dildine and several playwrights, including Grays, to interview residents about the state of the South. The tour included 12 cities across seven states: Alabama (Anniston, Mobile, Montgomery), Arkansas (Elaine); Georgia (Atlanta); Louisiana (New Orleans); Mississippi (Jackson); South Carolina (Columbia, Greenville); Tennessee (Memphis, Nashville, Sewanee).

The newly commissioned work by the four playwrights will be incorporated into the ASF programming beginning in summer 2025. Additional playwrights will be selected in the ensuing years. All of the commissioned work will celebrate the important and lasting changes affecting the South’s people, culture and land.

Robert Schenkkan, who was born in Chapel Hill, N.C. and grew up in Austin, Texas, is the author of the plays All The WayThe Great SocietyThe Kentucky Cycle, and Building the Wall. For film, he wrote Hacksaw Ridge and The Quiet American. He is currently working with director John Doyle on a musical, The 12; a new play for the Portuguese Theater company Mala Voadora; and a commission at New York’s Public Theater.

Plays by Donnetta Lavinia Grays, who hails from Columbia, S.C., include Where We StandLast Night and the Night BeforeLaid to Rest, and The Review or How to Eat Your Opposition, among others. She is a recipient of the Whiting Award for Drama, the Helen Merrill Playwright Award, NTC’s Barrie and Bernice Stavis Playwright Award, Lilly Award, Todd McNerney National Playwriting Award, and the Doric Wilson Independent Playwright Award.

A native of Decatur, Ga., who now lives in San Francisco, Lauren Gunderson is the author of I and You, The Book of Will, The Revolutionists, Natural Shocks, and The Half-Life of Marie Curie. She has the ATCA Steinberg New Play Award and the Lanford Wilson, and is a recipient of the Mellon Foundation’s Residency with Marin Theatre Company.

Mansa Ra, who lives in Memphis, Tenn., and attended Atlanta’s Morehouse College as well as the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale, has written such plays as Too Heavy for Your Pocket and What the End Will Be

Alabama Shakespeare Festival aims to broaden the cultural identity of the South by producing the classics, Shakespeare, contemporary plays, musicals, theatre for young audiences, and exciting new works. ASF serves more than 35,000 students annually with artistic programming, and is supported by grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. As of 2022, it had a budget of approximately $8 million.

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