March 14, 2017—The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) has announced that playwright Lauren Yee has been awarded the 2016 Francesca Primus Prize for her play in a word. Jointly sponsored by ATCA and the Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation, the Primus Prize is given annually to an emerging woman playwright. Yee will receive the $10,000 award check immediately and be officially congratulated at an upcoming ATCA conference.
How do you find the words to express grief and loss, especially when they are tinged with guilt? That is the conundrum at the heart of in a word. Fiona and Guy’s seven-year-old adopted son, Tristan, disappeared two years earlier, apparently kidnapped. Tristan was a very bright but difficult child, and the day he vanished was a particularly taxing one for Fiona. The passage of time seems to have intensified her inability to cope with what has happened, rather than making things easier. Words elude her or change meaning even as she says them, and objects take on a life of their own. Her chronic distraction and fixation on Tristan’s disappearance are also creating what may become an irreparable rift in her relationship with Guy.
What makes in a word so remarkable is the imaginative and unique way Yee plays with language. Words and their meanings become fluid and either merge or collide with one another. One critic commented that “reality swerves regularly into absurdism” in the play, and Yee says that in a word “captures my interest in both the form and architecture of language….the loss triggers not only a breakdown of their [Fiona and Guy’s] relationship but a breakdown of their conversations with each other and the outside world.” She continues, “To me, the funny and the painful go hand in hand. I’m interested in how human beings rely on fantasy and humor to get through difficult situations….My work varies wildly in subject matter and style. In each, the language is completely specific to the world of that particular play.”
in a word evolved through a series of readings from 2010 to 2014 at theaters as eclectic as the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, Lincoln Center’s LCT3 in New York City, and the Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena. It received its debut production at the San Francisco Playhouse in 2015 as a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere with subsequent productions at the Cleveland Public Theatre, Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company in San Diego, and Strawdog Theatre Company in Chicago. The play has been published by Samuel French.
Yee is a member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, the largest resident company of Asian American playwrights, as well as a Dramatists Guild associate member and a Northwestern University playwriting module mentor. Previously she was a Playwrights’ Center Core Writer and playwright-in-residence at the Chance Theater and Second Stage Theatre. Theaters that have commissioned her plays include South Coast Rep, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Trinity Repertory Company, Portland Center Stage, Mixed Blood Theatre, Lincoln Center Theatre/LCT3, the Goodman Theatre, and Encore Theatre Company. She received her BA in theater studies and English from Yale and her MFA in playwriting from the University of California San Diego. She has been honored with numerous awards and fellowships. Other plays include Ching Chong Chinaman, The Hatmaker’s Wife, Hookman, King of the Yees, and Samsara.
Yee was selected from 26 applicants by a nationwide committee of critics, chaired by Barbara Bannon (Salt Lake City, UT) and composed of Julie York Coppens (Juneau, AK), Marianne Evett (Arlington, MA), Kerry Reid (Chicago, IL), Lynn Rosen (Bellingham, WA), and Herb Simpson (Geneseo, NY).
“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 and critic Francesca Primus, the Primus Prize was originally administered by the Denver Center Theatre Company. ATCA began overseeing the award in 2004.
ATCA is the nationwide organization of theater critics and an affiliate of the International Association of Theatre Critics. In addition to the Primus Prize, it administers two other playwriting awards: 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.
Previous Winners of the Francesca Primus Prize
2015 Sharyn Rothstein, playwright, By the Water
2014 Jennifer Haley, playwright, The Nether
2013 Stefanie Zadravec, playwright, The Electric Baby
2012 Tammy Ryan, playwright, Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods
2011 Caridad Svich, playwright, The House of the Spirits
2010 Michele Lowe, playwright, Inana
2009 Jamie Pachino, playwright, Splitting Infinity
2008 EM Lewis, playwright, Heads
2007 Victoria Stewart, playwright, Hardball
2006 Karen Zacarias, playwright and founder/artistic director of Young Playwrights’ Theater, Washington, DC, Mariela in the Desert
2005 Michelle Hensley, artistic director of Ten Thousand Things Theatre Company, Minneapolis
2004 Lynn Nottage, playwright, Intimate Apparel
2002 Alexandra Cunningham, playwright, Pavane
2001 S. M. Shepard-Massat, playwright, Some Place Soft to Fall
2000 Brooke Berman, playwright, Playing House
1999 Melanie Marnich, playwright, Blur
1998 Brooke Berman, playwright, Wonderland
1997 Julia Jordan, playwright, Tatjana in Color