2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize winner announced

Winning writer Erika Dickerson-Despenza (photo from SSB Prize website)

The 2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize has been awarded to U.S. playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza for her play about the Flint, Michigan water crisis, CULLAD WATTAH.

In a rare move which shows the strength of this year’s field of writers, Kimber Lee’s THE WATER PALACE and Ife Olujobi’s JORDANS each were awarded a $10,000 Special Commendation. Each finalist receives $5,000.

Awarded annually since 1977, The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize is the largest and oldest international prize honouring Women+ playwrights. On April 7, a livestream of the award ceremony honoured Dickerson-Despenza and the other nine finalists. Award-winning star of stage and screen, and one of this year’s Blackburn Prize Judges, Paapa Essiedu, announced the winning play, which comes with an award of $25,000 and a signed and numbered print by artist Willem de Kooning.

The Willem de Kooning print which is a part of the annual prize

The highly-respected women+-only playwriting prize’s 2021 shortlist was complied from over 160 international submissions.

The shortlist comprised (in alphabetical author order)

Glace Chase (Aus/US) – TRIPLE X

Erika Dickerson-Despenza (US) – CULLUD WATTAH


Dawn King (UK) – THE TRIALS


Janice Okoh (UK) – THE GIFT

Ife Olujobi (US) – JORDANS

Frances Poet (UK) – MAGGIE MAY

Jiehae Park (US) – THE AVES


Having not seen the winning play yet , I must say that I was very impressed the brilliant Janice Okoh play THE GIFT which describes itself as “an outrageous play about imperialism, cross-racial adoption, cultural appropriation…and tea” Okoh’s play captures painfully and eloquently the past and present scars of British colonial racism. You can read my four-star review of the play here .

The show’s UK tour was sadly cut short due to the Covid shutdown, but it must return to ensure a wider audience has the chance to experience this unforgettable and important play.

Previous Susan Smith Blackburn Prize winners include Jackie Sibblies Drury for FAIRVIEW in 2019, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize (see my review of the Young Vic production here), and Lucy Prebble’s A VERY EXPENSIVE POISON won the Award in 2020.

The judges were director Natalie Abrahami, director Lileana Blain-Cruz, designer Bunny Christie, actor Paapa Essiedu, actor Jason Butler Harner and director Seema Sueko.

To learn more about the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, visit their website by clicking here

Congratulations to all the shortlisted writers, commended writers and the winner.

For those who may like to know more about the play and its author, these following excepts are from the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize website

ERIKA DICKERSON-DESPENZA is a Blk, queer feminist poet-playwright and cultural-memory worker from Chicago, Illinois. She is a 2020 Grist 50 Fixer and was a National Arts & Culture Delegate for the U.S. Water Alliance’s One Water Summit 2019. Awards: Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award (2020), Thom Thomas Award (2020), Lilly Award (2020), Barrie and Bernice Stavis Award (2020), Steinberg Playwright Award (2020), Princess Grace Playwriting Award (2019, for cullud wattah). Residencies & Fellowships: Tow Playwright-in-Residence at The Public Theater (2019-2020), New York Stage and Film Fellow-in-Residence (2019), New Harmony Project Writer-in Residence (2019), Dramatists Guild Foundation Fellow (2018-2019), The Lark Van Lier New Voices Fellow (2018). Communities: BYP100 Squad Member, Ars Nova Play Group (2019-2021), Youngblood Collective (EST). Commissions: The Public Theater, Studio Theatre & Williamstown Theatre Festival. Productions: cullud wattah (2019 Kilroys List) originally slated at The Public Theater, 2020 and Victory Gardens Theater, 2021. Currently, Erika is developing a 10-play Katrina Cycle, including shadow/land and [hieroglyph] (San Francisco Playhouse, 2021; 2019 Kilroys List), focused on the effects of Hurricane Katrina and its state-sanctioned, man-made disaster rippling in & beyond New Orleans.


Dickerson-Despenza’s self-described “Afro-surrealist” play was set for a 2020 premiere at The Public Theater, when the pandemic shut down theatres around the world.  The play embraces three generations of Black women living through the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

“I wrote cullud wattah to explore the politics of disgust, shame and refusal by highlighting the rupture of government intervention at the intersection of capitalism and environmental racism…I wrote this play specifically for black women on the margins of the margins. Poor and working class black women, single mothers, elders and widows, black women in recovery, and queer black girls.”

– Erika Dickerson-Despenza

Full of tenderness and humor, the play paints a searing portrait of a family of Black women as they navigate their way through horrific catastrophe. As described by the Public Theater, “cullud wattah blends form and bends time, diving deep into the poisonous choices of the outside world, the contamination within, and how we make the best choices for our families’ future when there are no real, present options.”

cullud wattah was developed during the Lark Play Development Center’s 2018 Van Lier New Voices Fellowship tenure (John Clinton Eisner, Artistic Director) and received its first staged reading in October 2018 at Jackalope Theatre in Chicago (Gus Menary, Artistic Director; Nora Leahy, Managing Director). cullud wattah received a Public Studio workshop production March 7 – 10, 2019 at The Public Theater, where it was scheduled to have its world premiere in July 2020 (Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director; Patrick Willingham, Executive Director) but is indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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