Two big theater names — Pulitzer-winning playwright Annie Baker and genre-bending performer Taylor Mac — are among the 2017 crop of artists and scientists to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, the $625,000 grant casually known as the “genius grant.”
Novelists Viet Thanh Nguyen (“The Sympathizer”) and Jesmyn Ward (“Sing, Unburied, Sing”), musician Rhiannon Giddens and New York Times Magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones are also among with painters, historians, scientists and human rights advocates to receive the 2017 fellowship, handed out annually by the MacArthur Foundation. The hefty stipend, paid in quarterly installments over five years, is among the largest prizes awarded to artists in the U.S.
Baker scores the fellowship for a body of work that is often quiet and elliptical, unafraid of silence and plumbing the emotions hiding behind the inarticulacy of everyday speech. Her 2009 breakout, “Circle Mirror Transformation,” about a small-town community acting class, has been done all over the country, and her 2013 play “The Flick,” about three employees at a failing movie theater, won her the Pulitzer. Recent plays — “John,” about infidelity and ghosts in a creepy bed and breakfast, and “The Antipodes,” about the tensions and unexpected mythic outbursts in a television writers’ room, have premiered at Off Broadway’s Signature Theater.
Writer-director-performer Mac, meanwhile, made a splash last season in New York with the 24-hour marathon “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” as much a work of musicology as it was performance. Known for elaborate costumes that draw from drag traditions, Mac creates work that aims to break down barriers between artists and audiences as well as the conventions of sexuality. The performer’s work as a writer includes “Hir,” a play about a gender-transitioning teen that had a run at Playwrights Horizons in 2015.
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The MacArthur fellowships have a history of singling out stage talent, with past recipients including Lin-Manuel Miranda, set designer Mimi Lien, puppeteer Basil Twist and playwrights Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Samuel D. Hunter and Sarah Ruhl.