Erika Dickerson-Despenza wins 2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize

Her play is about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Photo credit: Erika Dickerson-Despenza (Photo by Joey Stocks)

The winner of the 2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize has been awarded, honoring the writing of female playwrights. This year’s winner is Erika Dickerson-Despenza with cullud wattah, a new work exploring three generations of Black women living through the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

“I wrote cullud wattah to explore the politics of disgust, shame and refusal by highlighting the rupture of government intervention at the intersection of capitalism and environmental racism” says Dickerson-Despenza. She continued to say “I wrote this play specifically for black women on the margins of the margins. Poor and working class black women, single mothers, elders and widows, black women in recovery, and queer black girls.”

After workshops at the Public Theater in 2019, cullud wattah was due to receive its world premiere in July 2020. Unfortunately, all performances of cullud wattah are suspended due to the pandemic.

The international judging panel included Lincoln Center resident director Lileana Blain-Cruz, Jason Butler Harner and Seema Sueko, all representing the US. British judges included Paapa Essiedu, Natalie Abrahami and Bunny Christie.

On presenting the prize, Essiedu said: “What a play. Oh my God, what a play! When I say that this play hit me like a train. Like a ton of bricks. I don’t think I slept for about three weeks after reading this play. It did something very significant to me. … Through its passionate exploration of the black female experience in America right now I feel like this play is going to be a classic of today and of years to come.”

The list of finalists included Triple X by Glace Chase, A Play for Living in the Time of Extinction by Miranda Rose Hall, The Trials by Dawn King, The Gift by Janice Okoh, Maggie May by Frances Poet, The Aves by Jihae Park and The House of Shades by Beth Steel.

Past winners include Sweat by Lynn Nottage, How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel and Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury.

Photo credit: Erika Dickerson-Despenza (Photo by Joey Stocks)