For the first time in its 44-year history, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, which is awarded annually to a female, transgender or non-binary playwright who writes for the Anglophone theater, honors the author of a debut play.
Benedict Lombe, 30, a British-Congolese playwright based in London, received the award Monday for “Lava,” a monologue of one woman’s memoir dealing with black identity and displacement.
“It feels incredible,” Lombe said in a phone call Monday evening en route to the awards ceremony at the Globe Theater in London. “It’s a huge game that allows me to create a space where black people can leave bigger than when they came in.”
The Blackburn Prize includes $25,000 and a signed print by the abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. Many of the recipients have received widespread acclaim (including Pulitzer Prize winners Annie Baker, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Marsha Norman, Lynn Nottage, Paula Vogel, and Wendy Wasserstein).
Lombe’s “Lava” was commissioned by the Bush Theater in London and debuted there in July 2021. Ronke Adékoluejo starred in the one-woman show, directed by Anthony Simpson-Pike. Reviewing the work for The Guardian, Kate Wyver praised Adékoluejo’s tireless charisma, writing that she “masters the stage with such ease, exudes charm and confidence.”
But beneath the bright joy of Adékoluejo’s performance, Wyver wrote, “anger rumbles in Lombe’s lyrics.”
“In retrospect, she takes us through incidents and aggressions from her life, all of which get pushed into her stomach, gnawing at her and gaining weight as she carries the cumulative weight,” Wyver wrote.
“Lava,” which Time Out London’s Andrzej Lukowski described as a “free-form poetic outburst,” tells the story of a British Congolese woman who discovers a tale of quiet rebellion when she has to renew her British passport and wonders why her South African passport — a country she is also a citizen of — does not bear her first name. It is set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, at the time of the Mobutu Sese Seko dictatorship; post-apartheid South Africa; Ireland; and London.
“It was gratifying to be able to celebrate black people in fullness,” said Lombe, who wrote the piece in the summer of 2020, “and to cheer us up when so many people felt the opposite when they walked in.”
Along with Lombe, the other nine finalists for the Blackburn Prize were honored. They each received $5,000, including Zora Howard, who was honored for her play “Bust.” One of Howard’s earlier works, Stew, was a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Last year, Erika Dickerson-Despenza won the Blackburn Prize for her play “cullud wattah,” a look at the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, through the lens of one family. It was produced at the Public Theater last fall.
Is there also a New York run in the offing for “Lava”?
“I mean, fingers crossed,” said Lombe, who is in residence at the National Theater Studio in London and is working on new commissions. “I hope so. We’ll see what happens.”