Kennedy prize

“Junk” by Ayad Akhtar, a Pakistani American playwright, is the recipient of this year’s Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History. Akhtar will receive an award of $100,000. (Ayad Akhtar/Facebook photo)

Columbia University and Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith have named “Junk,” a play by Pulitzer Prize-winning Pakistani American playwright, novelist, screenwriter Ayad Akhtar as the 2018 winner of the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History. Akhtar will receive an award of $100,000.

Smith created the prize to honor the life and legacy of her brother, the late senator from Massachusetts. The prize is announced each year on or near his birthday, Feb. 22.

The prize is given annually through Columbia University to a new play or musical of merit that enlists theater’s power to explore the past of the United States, to participate meaningfully in the great issues of our day through the public conversation, grounded in historical understanding, that is essential to the functioning of a democracy.

The size of the award places the Kennedy Prize among the most generous given for dramatic writing, and indeed for writing in America, while the commitment to developing publicly accessible educational content makes the prize unique among dramatic and literary awards.

Produced by Lincoln Center Theater, “Junk” premiered on Broadway at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York City, Oct. 5, 2017 and ran through Jan. 7, 2018. “Junk” was first produced by La Jolla Playhouse in La Jolla, Calif., in 2016.

Akhtar is a graduate of Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

Set in 1985, “Junk,” according to Amazon, tells the story of Robert Merkin, resident genius of the upstart investment firm Sacker Lowell. Hailed as "America's Alchemist," his proclamation that "debt is an asset" has propelled him to a dizzying level of success. By orchestrating the takeover of a massive steel manufacturer, Merkin intends to do the "deal of the decade," the one that will rewrite all the rules. Akhtar chronicles the lives of men and women engaged in financial civil war: insatiable investors, threatened workers, killer lawyers, skeptical journalists, and ambitious federal prosecutors.

The panel of jurors is selected each year from a pool of playwrights, musical theater writers, lyricists, composers and scholars of literature, American history or political science.

According to the jury, “‘Junk’ takes on the vexed question of inequity dividing American society. It trenchantly examines the financial behavior and the flawed system of thought in the 1980s that paved the way for the polarized world in which we now live — manufacturing debt. In doing so, it speaks directly to the aims of the prize, enlisting theater’s power to explore America’s past, and through that, speak to our present, so crucial to the health of our democracy.”

Akhtar is the author of “Disgraced,” which won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, ran on Broadway, and was nominated for the 2015 Tony Award for ‘Best Play.’ His plays, “The Who & the What” and “The Invisible Hand” received off-Broadway runs and are currently being produced around the world, garnering nominations for the Evening Standard and Olivier Awards in London this past year.

As a novelist, he is the author of “American Dervish,” published in over 20 languages worldwide. As a screenwriter, he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for ‘Best Screenplay’ for “The War Within.”

Akhtar has received fellowships from the American Academy in Rome, MacDowell, the Sundance Institute, and Yaddo, where he serves as a board director. He is also a board trustee at PEN/America and New York Theater Workshop.

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