Established in 1978, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize is given annually to recognize women for works of outstanding quality written in English. The winner, in this case Nottage, takes home $25,000. ($10,000 is awarded for Special Commendation and other finalists receive $5,000.) Nottage won for “Sweat,” a drama set in a Pennsylvania town rocked by rumors of layoffs at the local factory. The play premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and was later staged at the Arena Stage in Washington. “Sweat” is expected to play in New York next season.
Nottage’s previous honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Genius Grant Fellowship and the aforementioned Pulitzer Prize, which she took home for “Ruined.”
The alum of Brown University and Yale School of Drama was in London to receive the prize and spoke with The Guardian. When the journalist pointed out that Nottage was one of three black finalists for the prestigious prize, the playwright commented, “For so long, we have been excluded.” She continued, “Up till now our stories haven’t been heard. I always describe race as the final taboo in American theater. There’s a real reluctance to have that conversation in an open honest way on the stage.”
Nottage then referred to theater as “the last bastion of segregation.” She said, “You see plays by African American playwrights, by-and-large, have majority Asian or African American cast and are produced either on smaller stages or produced in theaters that are specifically geared towards work by people of color.”
The professor of theater at Columbia University also had much to say about theater’s “built-in gender bias.” She noted, “There’s still a tremendous disparity from the number of women who are produced and the number of women who are actually writing plays. One would think that in this day and age we wouldn’t have to talk about this. But it’s still very much an issue. It’s dismal.”
Nottage expressed disappointment at the fact that her work is usually defined by her race and gender — a problem her white male counterparts don’t have. “It points to white privilege that we are seen as ‘exceptional,'” she suggested. “You get worn down and this constant conversation means are are still seen as ‘other.’ It’s that otherness that allows people to marginalize us and discriminate against us as women and as people of color.”