Brown MFA students win prestigious Kennedy Center playwriting awards

Graduate student playwrights Nkenna Akunna, Seayoung Yim and Christopher Lindsay were recognized with national awards for writing creative scripts that tackle difficult subjects such as racism, misogyny and “fatphobia.”

Three students enrolled in Brown master of fine arts programs captured prestigious national awards for outstanding playwriting and acting at the 2021 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, held virtually throughout the spring.

Each year, the Kenney Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., invites 18,000 students from colleges and universities across the U.S. to participate in workshops and stage productions, recognizing some of the finest festival talent with awards. Through the center’s National Playwriting Program, students who write for the stage have a chance to win all-expenses-paid professional development opportunities, monetary support or active memberships in the Dramatists Guild of America.

Nkenna Akunna, a Brown MFA student in playwriting, received two awards for “Good Fit,” a dark, absurdist play that comments on the limits and liberties assigned to people of different identities. She won a $1,000 first-place Rosa Parks Playwriting Award, which recognizes outstanding one-act plays about social justice or civil rights written by students and faculty, and a $500 second-place Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, which honors outstanding plays that speak to the African American experience.

Seayoung Yim, also Brown MFA student in playwriting, won a $500 second-place Paul Stephen Lim Playwriting Award, which is given to exceptional plays written by students of Asian heritage. The award was for her play “Jar of Fat,” which explores Korean American identity and “fatphobia” in what she calls a “fantastical fairytale world.”

“Both Nkenna and Seayoung write with a playful, even joyful, sense of experimentation, even as they tackle serious issues like racism and misogyny head-on,” said Julia Jarcho, head of playwriting and an associate professor of theatre arts and performance studies at Brown. “They are both writers who push against norms of what theater supposedly can and can’t do, say and show. They are both determined to make magic happen onstage.”

Christopher Lindsay, a student in the joint Brown/Trinity Repertory Company MFA program in acting, received special recognition for his play “Songs of a Caged Bird,” which earned him Rosa Parks and Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Awards. Lindsay’s play, which was produced virtually by Brown’s Rites and Reason Theatre, dramatizes the prison experience of Lee Berry, a Vietnam War veteran and Black Panther who was arrested on charges of plotting mass murder and acquitted two years later. Karen Allen Baxter, the longtime senior managing director of Rites and Reason Theatre who retired in December 2020, said the experience of making the production happen virtually was “like flying an airplane while we were building it.”

This year isn’t the first time Brown students have been recognized by the Kennedy Center. Most recently, Lucas Baisch, a Class of 2020 graduate, won a Latinx Playwriting Award last year for “Dry Swallow,” which follows the struggles and successes of seven people caught up in illegal drug trade. And Julia Izumi, a 2019 graduate, won awards in two categories for “miku and the gods,” a coming-of-age play tackling the topics of grief and personal responsibility.

“These awards are oriented toward writers who want to use the artistic possibilities of theater to reimagine social problems,” Jarcho said. “I think that this year, all three students have done that with their plays.”

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