Graduating senior Nicole Davis wins first Marina Keegan Award for her playwriting

There was barely standing room in the Saybrook College library, where friends, family, teachers and mentors of the late Marina Keegan ’12, gathered on April 26 for the presentation of the newly created Marina Keegan Award for Excellence in Playwriting to Berkeley College senior Nicole Davis.

The event celebrated the life of a gifted young writer and social activist who tragically died in a car accident days after her graduation with high honors from Yale. The occasion, which included a reading from “23,” the play that garnered its writer the first Maria Keegan award, was a celebration of the spirit of playwriting itself.

Though the location was small for such a large gathering, observed Saybrook Master Paul Hudak, the library was the most fitting setting to honor Keegan.

“Marina probably spent more time here than any place else at Yale,” said Hudak, who announced that the library will be renamed “The Marina Keegan Memorial Reading Room.” Hudak read from the plaque that will be placed on the wall: “In fond memory of Marina Keegan, who spent many hours here developing her voice in prose, poetry, theater, and life.”

Speakers at the gathering — which included, among others, her parents, Tracy and Kevin Keegan, and her former teachers Donald Margulies, Deb Margolin, and Anne Fadiman — alluded to Keegan’s inner struggle to reconcile two callings: social activism and creative writing.  

On the activist side: Keegan publicly urged members of her generation to resist the lure of Wall Street in favor of more socially meaningful careers. She organized an “Occupy Morgan Stanley” protest on the Yale campus, and gained national recognition for a column she wrote on the New York Times website DealBook railing against aggressive investment bank recruitment.

On the creative side, Keegan was “a literary decathlete,” in the words of her writing teacher Fadiman. The young writer’s output included short stories, personal essays, social commentary, poems, and plays, and she was the recipient of countless awards and honors for her work. Among her writings was the essay "The Opposite of Loneliness,"  which was published in the commencement issue of the Yale Daily News and went viral on the Internet following her death a few days later. 

Described as an exceptionally promising fiction writer, Keegan served an internship at The New Yorker in the summer before her senior year, and was to take a position there in the fall. The online edition of the magazine posthumously published her short story “Cold Pastoral,” about a college student confronting the sudden death of her boyfriend. Her musical, “Independents,” about recent college grads who are playing roles as American Revolution re-enactors, was chosen by the New York International Fringe festival for a full-scale production. Another play by Keegan, “Utility Monster,” was produced at Yale and is scheduled to be performed May 25–June 22 at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater in the Cape Cod town where the Keegan family has a home.  An excerpt from the play, in which three teens deliberate the value of a single human life, was read by actors—friends of the playwright—who were at the April 26 presentation.

Tracy Keegan spoke of her daughter’s realization that art and altruism could reinforce each other — that as a writer, she could have a positive impact on people’s lives. She quoted an essay the Yale student wrote three weeks before graduating: “For a while I was caught between impulses to create and to improve. … Four years after moving to New Haven, this quandary of passions has shaped me, pushed me, and expanded me beyond viewing art and activism as mutually exclusive. What I am passionate about is connecting and empowering people.”

Fadiman, who was both a teacher and mentor to Keegan, recalled her first encounter with the student in 2010, at a master’s tea with novelist Mark Helprin. When the widely published author told his audience that succeeding as a writer today was virtually impossible, Fadiman related, “a beautiful student with a furrowed brow and a nimbus of angry energy” stood up to challenge him.  The next day, Keegan sent Fadiman an email to complain about Helprin’s discouraging remarks. “I expected him to be more encouraging to those of us hoping to stop the death of literature,” Keegan wrote. That statement, Fadiman told the audience, caught Keegan’s quintessence.

Keegan’s passion for what she believed in was infectious, noted Fadiman: “She could make you want to shake your fist and march with her to save the whale, and elect Barack Obama, and keep Yalies from working at hedge funds … and stop the death of literature.”

After the reading of the second scene of Davis’ comedy “23,” in which three women about to turn 23 trade barbs and game moves as they discuss their relationships and aspirations, Fadiman turned to the inaugural Keegan Award-winner, saying: “If Marina were here today, she would be the one laughing and clapping most loudly for you.”

Margolin, who taught both Keegan and Davis, noted the winner of the first playwriting award “shares so many of Marina’s relentless strivings toward a mad love of human truths. Both of these young women’s voices anticipate a just world without in any way pretending that we don’t have dangerous and difficult steps ahead to get there.”

 “This prize is what everyone wanted, because it’s the prize Marina would most have wanted to win,” noted Fadiman. “The creation of the playwriting award means that Yale will never forget her name.”