Cornell University: New York Times critic at large wins 2020-21 Nathan Award

Maya Phillips, a critic at large for the New York Times, has been named winner of the 2020-21 George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.

The award committee noted that Phillips “chronicled a tumultuous, uncertain year in live art – one in which COVID-tested New York theaters recalibrated their online presence and carefully returned to in-person performance … Phillips recognized that the most daring artists took advantage of the cultural and political dislocations to undo norms of representation.”

The committee comprises the heads of the English departments of Cornell, Princeton and Yale universities, and is administered by Cornell’s Department of Literatures in English in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Many of Phillips’s reviews and essays in 2020-21, when taken together, create a powerful account of Black theater, said the committee, singling out for praise Phillips’s reviews of James Ijames’s brutal comedy, “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington,” and Claudia Rankine’s “November,” the latter published on the eve of the 2020 election.

Rankine’s play, a dissection of white masculinity, asks its audience to rethink assumptions about privilege and injustice. “If you’re not grappling with why these questions are necessary right now,” Phillips writes, “then you are doing something wrong.” Watching Rankine’s play while meditating on poll lines and protests, Phillips concludes: “As I wait to see what our democracy brings this week, Rankine’s work makes me consider the thought: Am I, too, a prophet of this America?”

Phillips’s arts and entertainment journalism has also appeared in the New Yorker, Vulture, Slate, The Week, American Theatre, Mashable, Polygon and elsewhere. She is the author of the poetry collection “Erou,” a finalist for the PEN Open Book Award, and winner of the 2019 Balcones Poetry Prize and 2020 Poetry by the Sea book award.

The Nathan Award was endowed by George Jean Nathan (1882-1958), a prominent theater critic who published 34 books on the theater and co-edited, with H.L. Mencken, two influential magazines – The Smart Set and The American Mercury. Nathan graduated from Cornell in 1904; as a student, he served as editor of the Cornell Daily Sun and the humor magazine the Cornell Widow. An archive of Nathan’s papers, correspondence, books and related artifacts are held in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections in the Cornell University Library.

Recent Nathan Award winners include Alexis Soloski, Soraya Nadia McDonald, John H. Muse, Helen Shaw and Sara Holdren.

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