Kennedy Drama Prize to Dan O’Brien, Robert Schenkkan


Dan O’Brien‘s The Body of an American and Robert Schenkkan‘s All the Way are the inaugural winners of the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, known as the EMK Prize. The announcement came today from Columbia University and Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith.

Scene from All the Way

Both plays exemplify the mission of the prize by engaging “the great issues of our day through the public conversation, grounded in historical understanding that is essential to the functioning of a democracy,” according to the release about the award.

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Ambassador Smith created the prize to honor the life and legacy of her brother, the late senator from Massachusetts. (Our previous coverage of the EMK Prize is here.) The prize will be announced each year on Ted Kennedy’s birthday, February 22. Ambassador Smith stated:

We are very pleased and excited about this award in Ted’s name. My brother loved the arts – museums, books, the performing arts. Music was perhaps dearest to him, but he and I shared an enjoyment of theater – especially, for Teddy, musical theater. He was also a great student of American history and made it come alive for many of us in the Kennedy family. He was much beloved by all the family and he would be very pleased by this tribute.

Each playwright will receive an award of $50,000, and the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia University Libraries will work with both recipients to create websites featuring study and teaching guides, historical research, and scholarly discussions and interpretations of the plays. The websites will be available to any theater artist, teacher or class studying the works with the intent of expanding understanding of the playwright’s work and career.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Schenkkan’s All the Way depicts a period of great turmoil and consequence in American history, from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 through election night in 1964. Its story is told by many of those who shaped that year’s critical moments, including Martin Luther King, Hubert H. Humphrey, J. Edgar Hoover, and most of all, President Lyndon B. Johnson, who deftly guides landmark civil rights legislation through a divided Congress. All the Way premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012.

O’Brien’s The Body of an American speaks to a more recent moment in history, when a single, stark photograph – that of the body of an American soldier dragged from the wreckage of a Blackhawk helicopter through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 – by photographer Paul Watson reshaped the course of global events. In powerful, theatrical language, O’Brien explores the ethical and personal consequences of Watson’s photograph, as well as the interplay between political upheaval and the experience of trauma in an age saturated by images and information. The Body of an American premiered at Portland Center Stage in 2012.