2023 recipients

Mildred Lewis is a playwright, screenwriter and director. Her creative journey began with music. She studied cello at the Harlem School of the Arts, then Oberlin College. Music continues to play a key role in her scripts. After graduation, she joined the Actors Studio’s Playwrights and Directors Unit and Circle Repertory LAB as a director. She served as a U.S. representative to the International Theater Festival. While she worked consistently, she wasn’t able to make a living and pivoted to film school. Mildred earned an MFA in film/television and MA in African Area studies from UCLA, winning a Samuel Goldwyn Creative Writing award. Family responsibilities dictated a focus on teaching and digital projects. Mildred began writing plays in 2014. She has had only one full production, but several staged readings and publications. An Associate Artist with Rogue Artists Ensemble, she writes with PlayGround-LA, Towne Street Theatre and The Road Theatre’s Under Construction project. She holds a micro-commission from the Lucille Lortel. In 2021, the Harlem9, Lucille Lortel and National Black Theatre commissioned GHOSTS OF BLACKNESS. LOUISIANA SHOAL, a Best of PlayGround pick, is in the 2023 Fade to Black Festival. Mildred is also in this year’s Orchard Project’s podcast lab. Honors include the 2022 Samuel French Off-Off Broadway festival, 2021 L.B. Williams Award (New Circle Theatre) and Humanitas’ PLAY LA (2018). Her script for $10 AND A TAMBOURINE earned a 2021 Ambie nomination as part of the Zip Code series.

Juked re-sets Sophocles’ ELECTRA in 1950’s Asheville, North Carolina. The “kingdom” is now a chain of drink houses or upscale juke joints owned by an African American man, Thaddeus Memnon. The play is narrated by Mary Lou, a griot/m.c. who exists at the crossroads, a space outside of time. JUKED begins with Thaddeus’s wife Nestra getting her revenge against him for killing their first-born daughter Effie years earlier. Thaddeus shot Effie while recklessly defending his first drink house. Nestra murders him along with her lover Gus. Nestra’s daughter Lectra sensed that things were about to go bad. She spirits her young brother O away with Banion, a railroad man. O gets away, but that leaves Lectra and her sister Themis to work as almost slaves for her mother and stepfather. Lectra lives only to bring O home and avenge her father. Themis floats through life in an alcoholic haze. A decade goes by. As Gus’s plans to grow the kingdom fail, he amps up pressure on Lectra and Themis. When Nestra has a premonition of death, things quickly begin to fall apart. Lectra summons a reluctant O back home. He and Lectra immediately kill Nestra and Gus. Mary Lou steps into force the three siblings to reckon with what they’ve done. And in a departure from the original, she forces them to consider what can lie beyond violence and murder.

Affirmation. I took a long hiatus from theatre to tend to family matters. After beginning as a director, I started writing plays in earnest in 2014. While I have had a measure of success for which I am grateful, a vote of confidence from my peers would make an enormous difference as I continue to battle the various isms out there. Beyond that, there are two specific things that I’d like to use the grant for. First, I’d like to set up a local mentorship for BIPOC emerging writers over 50. I don’t care if they remain hobbyists or go on to work professionally. I want those stories told. While this wouldn’t be expensive to set up, the grant would give the effort more credibility. Second, I have been writing about slavery and reconstruction in plays like The Gift and We Jump Broom. I would like to fund a trip to Ghana and Senegal to be able to start writing the African side of that story.

DeLanna Studi is a proud citizen of the Cherokee Nation with 30 years of experience as a performer, storyteller, playwright, and activist. Her theater credits include the First National Broadway Tour of Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning play August: Osage County, Off- Broadway’s Gloria: A Life (Daryl Roth Theatre), Informed Consent (Duke Theater on 42nd Street), and Regional Theaters (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Portland Center Stage, Cornerstone, and Indiana Repertory Theater). Her first play And So We Walked: Along the Trail of Tears retells her journey when she retraced her family’s footsteps along the Trail of Tears with her father. And So We Walked has toured throughout the country and was the first American play chosen for the Journees Theatricales de Carthage in Tunisia, Africa. Recently, it made its Off-Broadway debut at Minetta Lane where it was recorded for Audible. In film and television, DeLanna starred in the Peabody Award winning Edge of America, Hallmark’s Dreamkeeper, Goliath, Shameless, General Hospital, Reservation Dogs, and Disney’s Launchpad Series. She has served as a cultural liaison and the Artistic Director of Native Voices at the Autry, the only Equity Theatre in the country developing and producing plays written by Native American playwrights. DeLanna is a 2022 United States Artists Fellow.

I is for Invisible: Gabby Petito. Natalee Holloway. Laci Peterson. You know these names. You’ve heard these names. These women were missing; at one point, all of America knew their names, faces, and stories, and all of America was actively searching for them. Late journalism pioneer Gwen Ifill dubs this “missing white woman syndrome.”This syndrome further illuminates the stark contrast with how the media, law enforcement, and the United States handle the staggering amount of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) cases. I is for Invisible is an intimate look into the Not Afraid family as they search and seek justice for their lost loved one. How do you find justice in a system created to eradicate you instead of helping you? Who do you turn to when you know the system has your hands tied? I is for Invisible explores sovereignty, power, and family using Cherokee traditions, cosmology, and humor. It is a testament to hope, resiliency, and the many missing Indigenous women whose stories never make it to the evening news but whose voices cry out to be heard.

My practice in playwriting and theatre is at a point where after years of breaking trail as a Native American woman, my voice is being actively sought out. My passion for this work and years of experience in this field have necessitated me to advocate for Indigenous people and women. As Artistic Director of Native Voices, the only Equity theatre in the country dedicated to developing and producing new plays by Indigenous playwrights, my days center around leading initiatives for Indigenous artists, holding talking circles for Native youth, creating workshops, facilitating meetings, organizing EDIA objectives, creating work opportunities, and providing career guidance for Native actors and playwrights, while caring for my father in Cherokee Nation. 

Whether I intend to be or not, I am an example. My actions are watched (and sometimes mirrored), especially by Native communities and youth. This award would help me balance my individual artistic endeavors while enhancing my ability to be a resource for and amplify other voices. It would allow me to attend writing residencies and expand my network. It would provide the luxury of time to focus on my writing. By recognizing the artistic work of an individual, especially one devoted to community and social justice, we set an example that this work is of value. 

Our past informs who we are today, and this grant will enable me to use mine to impact and empower our future.

Hope Villanueva is a current resident of the Washington, DC area where she is an AEA Stage Manager by day and playwright by night. She has been recognized two different years by the O’Neill Playwright’s Conference (2021 Finalist and 2023 Semi-Finalist) and her work has been developed by Kennedy Center Page to Stage, Next Act! New Play Summit, NextStop Theatre, Ally Theatre Company, Black and Latino Playwrights’ Conference, Discovery New Play Festival, Kitchen Dog New Play Festival, and The Women’s Voices Theatre Festival. The Veils was produced by Ally Theatre Company as part of the DC Women’s Voices Festival in 2018, Brackish was produced at Wayward Artist in Los Angeles (2022) and Her Across the River was produced at Rapid Lemon in Baltimore (2022). The Head That Wears the Crown was a “Play That’s Filling Me Up” on The Subtext podcast, hosted by Brian James Polack. Brackish was produced to packed houses in Southern California by Wayward Artists in the summer of 2022. Most recently, BUZZ, a play about women scientists hunting murder hornets has been selected for The 2023 Valdez Theatre Conference in Alaska and was a finalist at Gulfshore Playhouse’s New Works Festival. Several of her short plays are published by YouthPlays. Ms. Villanueva is the literary manager for Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, NY and is pursuing her second master’s degree in Lesley University’s Writing for Screen and Stage program. She is working on her first TVpilot and is represented by IPEX Artists’ Agency.

Buzz: Alicia is at the forefront of her industry as an entomologist, studying insect communities in the field, but age is catching up with her in a young person’s game. After a series of small injuries and now getting older, she is pressured to work harder than ever to keep from becoming irrelevant. When murder hornets invade the United States, Alicia gathers Eden, an old co-worker and friend, and Eden’s young graduate student, Lizzie, to hunt the hornets and protect her career. Mixing science, dreams, and magical realism, Buzz, explores the pressures on women and the struggle to hold on to your dreams.

As someone transitioning from working primarily as a stage manager to wanting to work primarily as a writer, I’ve had some trouble being considered seriously as a writer. Because people in the industry know me as a stage manager, they forget or de-prioritize my work as a writer and I find it hard to get in doors that I thought would be open because of preconceived notions. A grant like this one will help me highlight that I am a writer, one working on serious subjects and to be watching.

2023 Finalists

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