Humanitas: A Pulitzer for English lecturer; Tony nomination for playwright

In this edition of “Humanitas,” a Yale lecturer wins a Pulitzer Prize, a playwright receives a Tony nomination, and YSA architects tackle the climate challenge.
Sarah Stillman and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Sarah Stillman and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

In the latest edition of Humanitas, a column focused on the arts and humanities at Yale, a lecturer of investigative journalism in Yale’s Department of English wins a Pulitzer Prize for her own public-interest journalism; a professor in the practice in the Department of Theater and Performance Studies earns a Tony nomination for an acclaimed Broadway revival; the director of the Yale Opera explains the fine art of trilling; and the Yale School of Architecture is selected to participate in a national initiative that challenges coastal communities to create solutions to the risks of sea level rise.

For more, visit an archive of all arts and humanities coverage at Yale News.

Pulitzer honors for investigative journalist

As head of the Yale Investigative Reporting Lab, Sarah Stillman has helped student journalists produce and publish deeply reported public-interest journalism on issues critical to a thriving democracy, including coverage of criminal justice, climate change, and migration issues.

This week, Stillman was recognized for her own investigative journalism, winning a Pulitzer Prize for her work as a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Stillman, a lecturer in the Yale English Department, was recognized for her December 2023 article, “Sentenced to Life for an Accident Miles Away,” which won the prize for Explanatory Reporting. The article revealed how the excessively harsh legal doctrine called felony murder has resulted in the incarceration of thousands of Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are young and Black.

The judges called Stillman’s work “a searing indictment” of the legal system’s reliance on the felony murder charge and its disparate consequences.

The award is well-deserved, and a testament to Stillman’s powerful voice, said Jessica Brantley, chair of the English Department in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

Sarah Stillman is a brilliant writer whose journalism makes a uniquely large impact, and we are lucky that she pursues this inspirational work alongside our students at the Yale Investigative Reporting Lab,” Brantley said. “Just as her reporting works to address the shortcomings of the world, Stillman’s collaborative teaching goes beyond modeling transformative journalism to enable her students to do it themselves.”

Kathryn Lofton, the FAS Dean of Humanities, also lauded Stillman as “a brave, indefatigable investigator of the truths powerful interests work hardest to hide.

No work is more important,” she said.

Stillman, who received B.A. and M.A. degrees at Yale, won a National Magazine Award for Public Interest, in 2012, for her reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan on labor abuses and human trafficking on United States military bases. Her reporting on the use of young people as confidential informants in the war on drugs received a George Polk Award and the Molly National Journalism Prize.

At Yale, in addition to her work as a lecturer in investigative reporting, she once co-taught a seminar on the Iraq War.

Also receiving a Pulitzer Prize was the author Ilyon Woo ’94, who was honored in the biography category for her best-selling book “Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom.” The book, which was named one of the New York Times’ “10 Best Books of 2023,” tells the true story of an enslaved husband and wife who escaped from bondage in Georgia in 1848 by posing as a white “gentleman” and his servant.

With three epic journeys compressed into one monumental bid for freedom, “Master Slave Husband Wife” is an American love story — one that would challenge the nation’s core precepts of life, liberty, and justice for all — one that challenges us even now,” according to the Pulitzer announcement.

Woo, who earned a B.A. in the humanities at Yale College, is also the author of “The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother’s Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband, the Shakers, and Her Times.”

Rave reviews (and seven Tony nominations) for ‘Appropriate’ revival

Yale’s Theater and Performance Studies community is applauding teacher and colleague Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, whose play, “Appropriate,” last week received a Tony Award nomination for Best Revival of a Play.

Jacobs-Jenkins, a professor in the practice of Theater and Performance Studies, reworked the 2013 play for its Broadway debut, where it has garnered rave reviews. The acting, staging and direction, initially in the Helen Hayes Theater (now at the Belasco), also earned the play an additional seven Tony nominations, as announced April 30.

The play takes place at a dilapidated Arkansas plantation house, where three siblings in the white Lafayette family have gathered to sort out the remains of their late father’s estate. When “horrible relics of the past, both the country’s and the family’s, are discovered in the clutter, they force the Lafayettes to re-examine the legacy of their father, supposedly once in line to be a Supreme Court justice but also, depending on whom you ask, a saint or a psychopath,” said a New York Times review.

In a 2021 interview in The Yale Review, Jacobs-Jenkins said he wrote the play while living in Berlin, a period when he started “wondering more deeply about the power of rhetoric and the limits of what a theatrical representation can ultimately accomplish. All three of the plays from that period — ‘An Octoroon,’ ‘Neighbors,’ and ‘Appropriate’— are about rejecting narratives that claim to be ‘about race,’ or ‘about Blackness.’ They’re more about revealing and testing the values of the people who show up to watch.”

The other nominations for this staging of “Appropriate” are: Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play (Sarah Paulson); Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play (Corey Stoll); Best Scenic Design of a Play (dots); Best Costume Design of a Play (Dede Ayite); Best Lighting Design of a Play (Jane Cox); Best Sound Design of a Play (Bray Poor and Will Pickens); and Best Direction of a Play (Lila Neugebauer).

The awards ceremony will take place on Sunday, June 16, at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater.

Jacobs-Jenkins, who joined the Yale faculty in 2021, was a 2016 MacArthur Fellow and is currently a Residency Five playwright at Signature. The initial Off Broadway run of “Appropriate” at the Signature Theater won an Obie Award for Best New American Play. His other plays include “Girls” (Yale Rep), the Pulitzer-finalist “Everybody” (Signature), and the Pulitzer-finalist “Gloria” (Vineyard Theater).

Appropriate” is at the Belasco Theater through June 23.

Trill seekers, listen up

In the Yale School of Music’s latest “mini master class” video, published on the school’s Instagram account, Gerald Moore, a professor in the practice of voice and director of Yale Opera, explains the art of trilling — which he describes as “sort of akin to a very controlled yodel, à la Tarzan” — and demonstrates his approach to teaching the technique.

The vocal trill, which involves an oscillation of the larynx, can be quite difficult to master, Moore says. But he considers it a “pretty essential skills for great vocal health.”

In order to execute a correct trill the larynx has to be completely free,” he said, “and that’s what singers want from their singing, whether it’s in florid music or sustained.”

Rising to the climate challenge

Like coastal communities around the world, the cities of Portland and South Portland, Maine are already experiencing the consequences of rising sea levels, including increased downtown flooding, damaged infrastructure, and record high tides.

This fall, the Yale School of Architecture will join a multi-university initiative that aims to better understand these increased threats and propose design solutions that help communities adapt to the challenge.

The semester-long initiative, known as the Envision Resilience Challenge, was developed by philanthropist Wendy Schmidt.

During the project, Yale students will spend a semester getting to know challenges faced by the local communities, research opportunities to address these threats, and propose adaptive design solutions for such issues as port infrastructure, water quality and access, and affordable housing. Ultimately, initiative partners will organize community programming, events, and a public exhibition to showcase the final designs.

In previous years, the initiative worked with communities in Massachusetts (on the island of Nantucket, and in the communities of New Bedford and Fairhaven) and Rhode Island (Narragansett Bay). Members of the Yale School of Architecture, including faculty from the Yale Urban Design Workshop, also participated in the Nantucket project, in 2021.

Get on your feet

The salsa ensemble from the Yale’s Music in Schools Initiative performing at Southern Connecticut State University
The salsa ensemble from the Music in Schools Initiative perform at Southern Connecticut State University.

The salsa ensemble from the Yale School of Music’s Music in Schools Initiative (MISI) was invited to open for the Grammy-award-winning singer Gloria Estefan before her appearance at Southern Connecticut State University on April 27. Estefan was the featured guest for this year’s Mary and Louis Fusco Distinguished Lecture at the John Lyman Center for the Performing Arts.

The salsa ensemble is part of MISI’s All-City Ensembles, an after-school program that invites New Haven public school students to play in one of several ensembles and receive free instruction from graduate students. MISI is made possible through a gift from the Yale College Class of ’57.

Documentary captures ‘scholar behind the books’

Historian Todd Holmes ’13 Ph.D. had a chance to meet and work with famed Yale scholar James C. Scott before he ever read his field-changing books.

While earning his doctorate at Yale, Holmes took on the role of graduate assistant and program coordinator for the Yale Agrarian Studies Program, an organization founded (and at the time still led) by Scott to better understand rural life and society. Struck by Scott’s intellect, wit, and boundless curiosity, Holmes felt compelled to share with others the story of the man behind a series of influential books on the social sciences.

A decade later, Holmes has produced a documentary film, “In A Field All His Own: The Life and Career of James C. Scott,” which casts a light on Scott’s pathbreaking scholarship on a broad range of subject matter, including peasant resistance, top-down state social planning, and anarchism.

Drawn from more than 30 hours of interviews — including more than 10 hours of conversation between Holmes and his former mentor — the film offers a moving portrait of a scholar whose work influenced all of the interpretative social sciences, and whom the New York Times described as the “unofficial founder of the field of ‘resistance studies.”

Scott, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Political Science who also held joint appointments in anthropology and environmental studies, worked at Yale from 1976 until his retirement in 2021. His wide-reaching scholarship has focused on peasant politics, resistance, and anarchism, among numerous other subjects.

The best way to capture Jim was really for him to tell his own story,” said Holmes, who is now a historian at the Oral History Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “The main goal in making the documentary was really just to highlight the scholar behind the books,” he said, “but also to allow people both today and certainly the many scholars of the generations to come to get to know James Scott.”

More arts and humanities

At the Yale School of Music, García-León builds community
All-City program helps local students connect with musical heritages
In DeVane Lectures, David Blight to examine the legacy of slavery and the Civil War
The Yale Review wins National Magazine Award for general excellence
Would you believe? A Yale historian reconsiders the seemingly impossible

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