Her Honor, Jane Byrne and Two Other Chicago Plays Win 2021 Steinberg-ATCA Awards

Christine Mary Dunford as Mayor Jane Byrne. Photo by Liz Lauren, courtesy of Lookingglass Theatre.

Chicago playwright J. Nicole Brooks has won the 2021 Harold and Mimi Steinberg / American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award for the play Her Honor, Jane Byrne. The Steinberg/ATCA Award, which carries a $25,000 cash prize, recognizes an outstanding script that premiered professionally outside New York City during 2020. All three of the award winners had their premieres at Chicago theaters.

Her Honor, Jane Byrne premiered at Lookingglass Theatre Company, where Brooks is an ensemble member. Set in 1981, the work chronicles a chapter of Chicago history when Byrne, the city’s first woman mayor, briefly moved into the Cabrini-Green housing project. The play gives voice to various stakeholders, including Cabrini-Green residents, City Hall flaks, members of the press, activists and Byrne herself.

Two more 2021 Steinberg/ATCA citations were awarded to plays that premiered in Chicago. Graveyard Shift by khat knotahaiku was produced by Goodman Theatre, and Verböten by Jason Narducy (music and lyrics) and Brett Neveu (book), was produced by House Theatre. Those citations carry $7,500 cash prizes each.

Due to theater closures related to the Covid-19 pandemic, ATCA’s New Play Committee considered works that received in-person productions in January, February and March 2020. The 2021 awards were presented online today.

Playwright J. Nicole Brooks. Image courtesy Lookingglass Theatre.

In their acceptance speech, the Chicago-based Brooks described the play as a “love letter to this wonderful city—a city that breaks my heart and a city that fills my heart. A city that made me into a writer.” Brooks offered words of encouragement to “all of the playwrights who don’t have fancy agents, may not have a fancy institution backing you—or who might even have a hard time getting someone to read your work to get some feedback. I just want to say that I feel you, I see you and I will always lock arms with you. You’re the best we’ve got.”

With an annual prize total of $40,000, Steinberg/ATCA is one of the largest national new play award programs. ATCA began honoring new plays produced at regional theaters outside New York City in 1977, and the awards have been funded by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust since 2000. Plays receiving a production in New York City during the award cycle are not eligible for the Steinberg/ATCA award, recognizing the many other awards programs already in existence there.

Also presented at the ceremony was the recipient of the 2021 M. Elizabeth Osborn Award, Douglas Williams for Ship, produced by Philadelphia’s Azuka Theatre. The award recognizes the work of an emerging playwright who has not yet received a major production, such as Off-Broadway or Broadway, nor received other major national awards. The Osborn Award carries a $1,000 cash prize.

The finalists were selected from a pool of eligible scripts recommended by ATCA members from around the country. Lou Harry (Indianapolis) served as chair of the 16-member ATCA New Play Committee during the adjudication process. Chicago theater critics on the committee are Nancy Bishop of Third Coast Review, Amanda Finn Haggerty and Karen Topham.

Past honorees of ATCA’s new play award include August Wilson, Horton Foote, Lynn Nottage, Moises Kaufmann, Lee Blessing, Marsha Norman, Nilo Cruz, Regina Taylor, Qui Nguyen, Lauren Yee, Michael Cristofer and Rebecca Gilman. A complete list of recipients can be found here.

The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) was founded in 1974 and works to raise standards and public awareness of the functions and responsibilities of theater critics. It is the only national association of professional theater critics and journalists, with more than 200 members working in print, broadcast and online media. ATCA members also recommend an annual candidate for the Tony Award for Regional Theatre presented by the American Theatre Wing/Broadway League, and vote on the yearly inductions into the Theater Hall of Fame.

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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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