Playwrights Parks, O'Brien get Horton Foote Prize

AP News
Posted: Oct 07, 2014 6:16 PM
Playwrights Parks, O'Brien get Horton Foote Prize

NEW YORK (AP) — Playwrights Suzan-Lori Parks and Dan O'Brien were each awarded the Horton Foote Prize for excellence in American theater for their plays exploring war and what conflict does to us.

Parks' trilogy "Father Comes Home from the Wars" was named the most promising new American play, and O'Brien's "The Body of an American" was named outstanding new American play.

Each winning playwright received $15,000 during a ceremony attended by Foote's children on Monday at The Lotos Club in Manhattan.

Fifty-eight resident U.S. theaters were invited to nominate a play without revealing the author or even the title, and six finalists went to judges, who included artistic director Andrew Leynse, playwright Lynn Nottage, director Lucie Tiberghien and director and actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

O'Brien's play, which also won the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, is a story of war and war reporting that was inspired by the experiences of Paul Watson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for a 1993 photo of a dead U.S. Army Ranger dragged through the streets of Somalia's capital.

"The Body of an American" had its world premiere with Portland Center Stage in Oregon in October 2012 and will be presented at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia beginning Jan. 7.

Parks' play, which starts performances Oct. 14 at the Public Theater, is a meditation on freedom set against the Civil War. In it, a slave must choose whether or not to join his master on the Confederate battlefield and follows that decision over three parts. Parks previously won the Pulitzer Prize for her play "Topdog/Underdog."

"It never gets old. Praise never goes out of style," Parks, 51, said before the ceremony. "It's always wonderful to be recognized, when the community gives you a pat on the back or raises a glass to you."

Both playwrights revealed that they briefly met Foote before his death in 2009. Parks chatted with Foote at a party about Texas, while O'Brien is a Foote family friend — he rented daughter Daisy Foote's apartment for years — who once had the pleasure of Horton Foote watching one of his pieces performed.

"I admire his writing so much," said O'Brien, 40. "Getting an award and some money is great, but to actually truly love the writer makes it that much more special."

The Foote awards are presented every two years and have previously gone to David Lindsay-Abaire, Naomi Wallace, Will Eno and Nottage. The prizes are funded by the Greg and Mari Marchbanks Family Foundation.

"The fact that we a have way of saying, as a society, 'We honor and celebrate your accomplishment,' I think it means an enormous amount, not only to the artist who gets it but also to the artist who aspires to get it," said Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater's artistic director.

Mari Marchbanks said O'Brien's play got a second bite of the apple this time. Two years ago, "The Body of an American" was a finalist for the Foote award for the most promising — or unproduced — play. Since then, it was produced and raced to the top of the list of outstanding new American plays.

"I had a pretty emotional moment," said Marchbanks, who was silently taking notes as the judges discussed the finalists. "I had to get up and walk out and come back because I thought it was a very special moment."

For more than six decades, Horton Foote spun down-home tales inspired by the characters he met and heard about while growing up in Wharton, Texas, the town where he set many of his plays. Though he went in and out of fashion, Foote was in the end hailed as an American Chekhov and earned two Academy Awards and a 1995 Pulitzer Prize.

Leynse, the artistic director at Primary Stages and a judge of the Foote prizes, said the awards reflect the man for whom they are named.

"It's a celebration of the playwrights' work but also affirms that what they're doing is right," said Leynse. "In that sense, it's in true Horton Foote spirit."