The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) announced Thursday that playwright Tammy Ryan has won the 2012 Francesca Primus Prize for her play Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods. She receives $10,000, a wall plaque and a chance to be celebrated at an upcoming ATCA conference.
Jointly sponsored by ATCA and the Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation, the Primus Prize is given annually to an emerging woman theater artist. Playwrights, artistic directors, and directors are eligible to apply.
Ryan’s play poignantly and powerfully integrates a personal story with a current world issue. When single mother Christine meets Gabriel, one of the “lost boys” from Sudan, in the produce section of a Pittsburgh Whole Foods where he works, the two form a relationship that changes both their lives. The play avoids easy, feel-good answers in exploring the very different ways that Christine and Gabriel think he should deal with the challenges he faces. As Pittsburgh theater critic Christopher Rawson perceptively observes, “the person who is most truly lost amid middle-class comfort is…Christine… . [The play charts] the faltering, one-forward, one-back steps she takes to find her own usefulness and meaning.”
Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods was developed in 2009 at the New Harmony Project, won the Premiere Stages Play Festival, and was workshopped at the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey and the Lark Play Development Center. Premiere Stages and Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey coproduced the play in September 2010, and the following fall, Playhouse Rep, the professional company at the Point Park University Pittsburgh Playhouse, staged a production that garnered critical praise and sold out its entire run.
“The most gratifying aspect of the experience,” Ryan says, “was that the play was able to have a conversation with the community in which it was born,” a revealing response from a Brooklyn-bred playwright who has been a vital presence in the Pittsburgh theater community for the past 20 years. This award celebrates not only her own successful career but her continual efforts to mentor young playwrights and extend her expertise through teaching and collaborative projects like We Are Antigone, developed with both high school and college students.
Ryan was selected from 22 contenders by a nationwide committee of critics, chaired by Barbara Bannon (Salt Lake City) and composed of Julie York Coppens (Cincinnati), Marianne Evett (Boston), Lynn Rosen (Bellingham, WA) and Herb Simpson (Geneseo, NY).
The committee announced an additional commendation to playwright Dominique Morisseau for Follow Me to Nellie’s, her portrait of how a Mississippi brothel and its outspoken madam become entwined in the civil rights struggle to register black voters in 1955. It was read at the 2010 National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center, and then staged at Premiere Stages in New Jersey in July 2011. Morisseau is currently developing a trilogy of plays on Detroit, her hometown, and working Sunset Baby, which is intended for production this fall in London.
“The Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation was established to recognize and support emerging women artists who are making a difference in the theater community in which they work,” observed Barry Primus, the foundation administrator. Founded in 1997 in memory of actress, critic and ATCA member Francesca Primus, the Primus Prize was originally administered by the Denver Center Theatre Company. ATCA began overseeing the award in 2004.
Ryan had several premieres in 2011, including the one-act Lindsey’s Oyster, a cooperative production with Turkish playwright Zeynep Kaçar on what it means to be female in their vastly different societies, which debuted in both the United States and Turkey. Ryan’s other full-length plays include A Confluence of Dreaming, FBI Girl: How I Learned to Crack My Father’s Code, Dark Part of the Forest, Baby’s Blues, The Music Lesson, and Pig. Ryan is the Pittsburgh representative for the Dramatists Guild and also helps nurture local educational and collaborative theater projects. In January 2012, she created From the Ground Up, designed to connect artistic directors of small theaters with emerging playwrights. She has had a number of plays published and received multiple grants and fellowships.
ATCA is the nationwide organization of theater critics (including Evans Donnell of ArtsNash and Amy Stumpfl of The Tennessean) and an affiliate of the International Association of Theatre Critics. In addition to the Primus Prize, it administers the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award and the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award. ATCA members also recommend a regional theater for the annual Tony Award and vote on induction into the Theatre Hall of Fame. For more, go to www.americantheatrecritics.org.
Previous Winners of the Francesca Primus Prize
1997 Julia Jordan, playwright, Tatjana in Color
1998 Brooke Berman, playwright, Wonderland
1999 Melanie Marnich, playwright, Blur
2000 Brooke Berman, playwright, Playing House
2001 S.M. Shepard-Massat, playwright, Some Place Soft to Fall
2002 Alexandra Cunningham, playwright, Pavane
2004 Lynn Nottage, playwright, Intimate Apparel
2005 Michelle Hensley, artistic director of Ten Thousand Things Theatre Company, Minneapolis
2006 Karen Zacarias, playwright and founder/artistic director of Young Playwrights’ Theater, Washington, D.C., Mariela in the Desert
2007 Victoria Stewart, playwright, Hardball
2008 EM Lewis, playwright, Heads
2009 Jamie Pachino, playwright, Splitting Infinity
2010 Michele Lowe, playwright, Inana
2011 Caridad Svich, playwright, The House of the Spirits