Christopher Demos-Brown was not one of the playwrights whose new work was produced during the 38th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
Still, the lawyer by day, playwright by night had one of the happier evenings of his life April 5 during the festival’s closing weekend.
The Miami playwright, whose challenging day job is as a trial attorney, has written just four full-length plays, the first being Our Lady of Allapattah in 2006. Yet last weekend, there he was, enjoying an invaluable moment in the national spotlight during what is arguably the country’s most significant, influential celebration of new plays.
Demos-Brown’s Fear Up Harsh, which had its Zoetic Stage world premiere in November at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, was named a citation winner in the prestigious Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award competition. Presented annually by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust and the American Theatre Critics Association, the honor carries a $25,000 first prize — this year won by Lauren Gunderson for I and You — with $7,500 each going to citation winners Demos-Brown and Martin Zimmerman, honored for his play Seven Spots on the Sun.
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The Steinberg/ATCA honor, the richest prize for a play premiering in a regional theater, is a big deal. Past winners include Lynn Nottage, Horton Foote, August Wilson and, just a few days before he won the Pulitzer Prize for Anna in the Tropics, Miamian Nilo Cruz. The recognition can go a long way toward propelling a play to a continued life, as Demos-Brown is well aware.
“You look back at the list of playwrights who have received the Steinberg/ATCA awards and citations, and your jaw kind of drops. Truly some of the giants of American play-writing … Arthur Miller’s on that list, for God’s sake! So I’m deeply honored and still rather stunned,” Demos-Brown said after returning from the festival.
“In the past, ATCA’s imprimatur has resulted in multiple productions for most Steinberg plays, and I’m hopeful that this recognition will help me get future productions for Fear Up Harsh and my other work. The Humana Festival at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville is kind of hallowed ground for a playwright because it’s been the birthplace of so much great American theater. So to receive this honor there just added to the magic.”
Demos-Brown — who founded Zoetic Stage in 2010 along with his wife, lawyer Stephanie Demos; award-winning playwright Michael McKeever; and director Stuart Meltzer — is one of the bright lights of a growing South Florida play-writing scene that is feeding the region’s burgeoning appetite for new work.
Cruz, the first Latino to win the Pulitzer in drama, recently directed a sold-out run of his newest work, Sotto Voce, at the On.Stage Black Box at Miami-Dade County Auditorium. Tarell Alvin McCraney, a MacArthur “genius grant” winner last fall, staged his adapted Antony and Cleopatra at Miami Beach’s Colony Theatre in January in a production that was the joint effort of GableStage, the Royal Shakespeare Company and New York’s Public Theater. While Demos-Brown was in Louisville being honored, McKeever was appearing in the final weekend of his Zoetic world premiere Clark Gable Slept Here, and Juan C. Sanchez was enjoying yet another sold-out weekend of his world premiere Paradise Motel at Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores.
Zoetic, Miami Theater Center’s SandBox Series, Miami’s Mad Cat, New Theatre in Cutler Bay, City Theatre’s Summer Shorts, the Naked Stage’s 24 Hour Theatre Project, and the Theatre at Arts Garage in Delray Beach (run by Lou Tyrrell, who produced Demos-Brown’s When the Sun Shone Brighter in 2010 at the now-defunct Florida Stage) are just some of the outlets for new work in South Florida.
Fear Up Harsh, which won the 2013 Carbonell Award as South Florida’s best new work on the Monday before Demos-Brown picked up his Steinberg/ATCA honor, is a searing play about a disabled Congressional Medal of Honor winner and the troubled former comrade who saved his life in Iraq. The writing is smart, penetrating, wry and edgy, the work of a captivating storyteller.
Qualitatively, Fear Up Harsh is certainly the equal of numerous plays that have made the Humana Festival cut since-longtime artistic director Jon Jory, who led the Tony Award-winning Actors Theatre from 1969 to 2000, launched it in 1976. A major contributor to new work in American theater, the Humana Festival has yielded three Pulitzer Prize-winners (D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and Donald Margulies’ Dinner With Friends) among the nearly 450 plays it has produced.
This year, under Obie Award-winner Les Waters (he succeeded Marc Masterson, the artistic director who followed Jory, in 2012), the Humana Festival presented five full-length works, three short plays and an apprentice anthology inspired by past festival plays. As usual, most pieces stirred a gamut of reactions from the theater professionals and media types visiting from all over the country.
Orlando native Lucas Hnath’s commissioned piece The Christians, which begins as an eerily realistic service at an evangelistic megachurch, examines the spiritual, personal and financial repercussions of a pastor’s radical shift on a basic principle of faith. Dorothy Fortenberry’s engaging The Partners looks at two couples, the issues in their relationships and their struggles to move forward in life. In Jordan Harrison’s The Grown-Up, a 10-year-old boy uses a magic doorknob to enter various points in his future life, most often not liking what he finds.
Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) follows a Brooklyn high school basketball player’s journey through peril, promise and tragedy. And Steel Hammer, a movement-driven collaborative piece directed by Anne Bogart and performed by the SITI Company (featured a number of times at the Humana Festival), offers varying takes on American folk legend John Henry.
Thus far, South Florida-connected playwrights have been just the faintest blip on the Humana Festival’s radar. Neena Beber, who grew up in Miami, had her play Misreadings produced in the 1997 festival. Former Miamian Marco Ramirez, now a successful television writer based in Los Angeles, had his short plays I Am Not Batman and 3:59am: a drag race for two actors produced at the 2007 and 2009 festivals, respectively.
Demos-Brown, as noted, has yet to have a play performed on one of Actors Theatre’s stages during a Humana Festival. But his work has now been celebrated there, a fact that makes him happy not just for himself and his play but for South Florida’s community of playwrights.
“I am so profoundly moved by the support everyone in the South Florida theater community has shown me over the years,” he says. “Most of the plays that win these awards come from the bigger, more established theaters in Chicago and on the West Coast, so I felt fiercely proud to be representing our small but mighty region.”