The Mimi Award, the largest monetary prize for theater in the U.S., will go this year to Stephen Adly Guirgis, who scores $200,000 as part of the package.
The writer of Broadway’s “The Motherfucker with the Hat” as well as “Jesus Hopped the A Train” and “Our Lady of 121st Street,” takes home the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award, handed out every other year to an established scribe who has made a significant contribution to American theater. He got the news while in the midst of rewrites for his play “Between Riverside and Crazy,” which recently wrapped a well-received run Off Broadway.
“My first thought was: Okay, I gotta make sure this play’s good,” he said. “I don’t want to embarrass these people!”
The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust alternates its distinguished playwright award with the Steinberg Playwright Awards, meant for writers at earlier stages of their career. Outside observers might wonder why a Broadway alum like Guirgis — or like past award recipients David Henry Hwang, Lynn Nottage or Tony Kushner – would need such a hefty chunk of cash.
Dirty secret: Most playwrights don’t make that much money – at least not from plays.
“In a world where there are so often more lucrative opportunities in film and TV, it’s absolutely essential that we keep our finest playwrights writing for the theater, and that we give them an incentive and an excuse to keep on writing plays,” said Bill Rauch, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival a.d. (and director of Broadway’s “All the Way”) who is a Steinberg advisory board member.
Rauch said Guirgis’ dynamic and explosive writing, vivid language and commitment to diversity made him an obvious choice for the award.
Kwame Kwei-Armah, a fellow advisory board member who is also a playwright and actor (as well as the a.d. of Baltimore’s Center Stage), knows just how useful a sizeable prize can be: The U.K. native once won the Evening Standard Award, which came to about $50,000 at the time. “It bought me the freedom to stop being a television actor and start being a fulltime playwright,” he said.
Guirgis said he has a couple of plays on his to-do list, including one about boxing as well as a still-gestating idea with the working title “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington With an Uzi.”
“’It’s not just, Here’s some money,’” he said of the Mimi. “It’s more like an unspoken contract, a commission without a date attached, to keep writing plays.”