2018 Yale Drama Series Prize goes to a play about a family facing a death

Leah Nanako Winkler
Leah Nanako Winkler (Photo credit: Leni Kei Photography)

The Yale Drama Series Prize, one of the theater world’s most prestigious playwriting awards, has been given to Leah Nanako Winkler for her play “God Said This,” a portrait of five people confronting mortality in different ways and unexpectedly finding that their struggles bring them together.

The winning play was chosen by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar. As the winner of the 2018 Yale Drama Series Prize, “God Said This” will receive a private staged reading at Lincoln Center Theater’s Claire Tow Theater on Oct. 30.

Now celebrating its 12th year, the Yale Drama Series is considered the preeminent playwriting award in cooperation with Yale University Press, and is solely sponsored by the David Charles Horn Foundation. The Yale Drama Series Prize is given annually for a play by an emerging playwright, selected by a distinguished playwright. The winner receives the David Charles Horn Prize of $10,000 as well as publication of the play by Yale University Press and a staged professional reading. The Yale Drama Series is an international open submission competition for emerging playwrights, who are invited to submit original, unpublished, full-length, English language plays for consideration. All entries are read blindly.

This year’s runner-up is Bleu Beckford-Burrell for “Lyons Pride.”

I was very moved by Leah’s play about a family caught between cultures, set in the final weeks of a mother’s life,” said Akhtar, who chose “God Said This” from over 1,600 submissions from 50 countries. “I found it witty and wise, inhabited by a poignant specificity that conveyed me to a deeply felt sense of the universal — of the perfection of our parents’ flawed love for each other and for us; for the ways in which the approach of death can order the meaning of a human life. I am grateful to the talented and dedicated members of the jury and to Francine Horn and everyone at the Yale Drama Series for all their hard work.”

Francine Horn, president of the David Charles Horn Foundation, said, “In reading Ms. Winkler’s play, it is clear that she has a deep understanding of the human condition and the challenges that separate or bond families when faced with losing a parent. Ms. Winkler writes with a compassion and wit that defies her age. We are proud to add Leah to our growing family of talented playwrights. We will follow her career with great enthusiasm and loud applause.”

I wrote this play quietly on a hospital couch last spring as my mother was undergoing chemotherapy treatments at the Markey Cancer Center in Lexington, Kentucky,” said Winkler. “At the time, I would have never imagined that it would win any prize, nevertheless from such a prestigious institution like Yale, chosen by Ayad Akhtar — a playwright I greatly admire who blows me away with his depth and understanding of the world. All I can say is that I’m so happy, grateful, and thankful. I can’t help but think of my drama teachers, Jason Meenach and Lisa Osterman at Tates Creek High School, who told me theater was a safe place to do unsafe things. I hope to continue writing from the heart without fear, and this honor means the world to me and my mom.”

In the play, New York transplant Hiro returns home to Lexington, Kentucky after years away as her mother is undergoing chemotherapy. Sophie, her born-again Christian sister, fights to maintain her faith amid adversity. James, their recovering alcoholic father, wants to repair his fractured relationship with his daughters, but redemption isn’t easy. And John, an old classmate and single dad, worries about his legacy.

Winkler is from Kamakura, Japan, and Lexington, Kentucky. Three months after submitting “God Said This” to the Yale Drama Series competition, she was told the play would have its world premiere at the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 2018 Humana Festival, where it is currently playing until April 8. “God Said This” will also be a part of Primary Stages’ 2018-2019 season. (It will begin previews in January 2019 Off-Broadway at Primary Stages in New York.) In addition, Winkler’s play “Two Mile Hollow” (2017 Kilroys List) is having a simultaneous world premiere in theaters throughout the country. Her previous plays include “Kentucky” (2015 Kilroys List), “Death for Syndney Black Minami,” “The Internet,” and “The Adventures of Minami.”

Winkler is the 2018-2019 Jerome Fellow at the Lark. She is also a member of Ma Yi, Ensemble Studio Theatre, The WP Theater Playwrights Lab, and the Dorothy Strelsin New American Playwrights Group at Primary Stages. She was a 2017 Sundance/Ucross fellow. Recently, she was awarded the first-ever Mark O’Donnell Prize from The Actors Fund and Playwrights Horizons. She is also one of the first recipients of Audible’s new commissioning program for emerging playwrights.

The David Charles Horn Foundation was established in 2003 by Francine Horn, David’s wife and partner in the international fashion publication service “Here & There.” David Horn’s dream of having his own writing published was never realized. The foundation seeks to honor David’s aspirations by offering other writers the opportunity of publication. More particularly, the foundation supports emerging playwrights with the belief that they are perhaps in greater need of assistance today than beginning writers in any other of the literary arts. The foundation provides all the funding for the Yale Drama Series.

Previous winners of the Yale Drama Series include John Austin Connolly’s “The Boys from Siam” (selected by Edward Albee in 2007); Neil Wechsler’s “Grenadine” (selected by Albee in 2008); Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s “Lidless” (selected by David Hare in 2009); Virginia Grise’s “blu” (selected by Hare in 2010); Shannon Murdoch’s “New Light Shine” (selected by John Guare in 2012); Jen Silverman’s “Still” (selected by Marsha Norman in 2013); Barbara Seyda’s “Celia, a Slave: 26 Characters Testify” (selected by Nicholas Wright in 2015); Emily Schwend’s “Utility” (selected by Wright in 2016); and Jacqueline Goldfinger’s “Bottle Fly” (selected by Wright in 2017).

Read more about the selection of “God Said This” in this New York Times article about the Yale Drama Series winner this year.

For additional information about the Yale Drama Series, visit the David Charles Horn Foundation website.

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