Stephanie Alison Walker (Photo provided by ATCA.)
The American Theatre Critics Association named Stephanie Alison Walker as the recipient of the 2019 Francesca Primus Prize, which recognizes an emerging woman playwright. The prize, administered through ATCA, is named in honor of Francesca Primus, a playwright, dramaturg, theater critic, and ATCA member who died of cancer in 1992. The Primus Prize has been adjudicated by ATCA since 2002. The award includes a $10,000 honorarium given through the generosity of the Primus Foundation.
Walker received the award for The Madres, which had a rolling world premiere through the National New Play Network with Chicago’s Teatro Vista, Skylight Theatre Company in Los Angeles, MOXIE Theatre in San Diego, and Shrewd Productions in Austin, Texas during 2018. She was selected from three finalists, including Jennifer Barclay for Ripe Frenzy and Ifa Bayeza for Benevolence. To qualify for the 2019 award, plays must have had a full production in 2018.
In The Madres, Walker goes back to 1978 and Argentina’s “dirty war,” echoing the stories of the “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo” whose protests against Argentina’s repressive and murderous military dictatorship raised the consciousness of the world about those activists “disappeared” by the government.
Alex Huntsberger of Time Out Chicago, reviewing the Chicago production, wrote: “Until the day that history delivers us an oppressive dictatorship perpetrated entirely by women, studies in fascism will innately double as studies in misogyny. In her new play The Madres, playwright Stephanie Alison Walker makes this link explicit.” In the Austin Chronicle, Elizabeth Cobbe wrote: “The Madres is a successful play because the human moments of back and forth, of hope and despair, of arguing over life and death and then also over the proper way to dust a bookshelf, paint a picture of what it means to live through a personal tragedy that takes years to unfold. Our everyday squabbles and joys don’t disappear; they oddly coexist with the new reality of losing a loved one. Yes, it’s good art. And then you remember that there are parents now—right now—who have had their children taken from them for political reasons and who are desperate for their children’s return.”
Primus Prize committee chair Kerry Reid reflected on the selection challenge. “The committee, as always, was faced with a tough decision this year, with so many fine plays, including all the finalists, that asked us to look at the personal costs of political and politicized violence and upheaval. But we were struck by how Walker’s play explored the history of the ‘desaparecidos’ through a lens that brought that history into painful, intimate focus and also showed us the women who resisted and bore witness to the horrors of Argentina’s ‘dirty war.’”
For playwright Walker, women are at the center of the story. “At its core, The Madres is about the strength and resilience of women. When I wrote it in 2015, people would say, ‘Isn’t it sad what happened there? What a shame.’ The shame is how relevant Argentina’s history is to America in 2020 and how we refused to believe it could ever happen here just as the Argentine people didn’t believe it could happen there. I’m writing this on a day in which President Obama just called for ‘sustained, peaceful protest.’ We have the courageous example of the Madres and the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina—who have sustained their protest for over forty years—to show us how.
“I’m hopeful that this extraordinary recognition from the American Theatre Critics Association means that more people will become aware of this story and learn the truth about what happened when a country disappeared 30,000 of their own people. I’m hopeful the story will inspire people in this country to action. To march, to organize, to vote.”
This year’s committee, chaired by Reid (theater and dance editor of the Chicago Reader), included ATCA members Marianne Evett, Eva Heinemann, Michael Howley, Wendy Rosenfield, Nicole Serratore, and Catey Sullivan.
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, with over two hundred members working in print, broadcast, and online media. ATCA is a chapter of the International Association of Theatre Critics / Association internationale des critiques de théâtre (IATC-AICT), a UNESCO-affiliated organization that sponsors seminars and congresses worldwide.
ATCA also presents the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award, honoring emerging playwrights and administers the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, which grants $40,000.00 annually to recognize the best plays that premiered professionally outside New York City.
Additionally, ATCA members 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.