Theater-maker Shariffa Ali enjoyed a life-changing moment on Wednesday evening when she accepted a $35,000 commission from the Hermitage Artist Retreat.
She’s traveled across the world to bring you her art.
Now, thanks to the Hermitage Artist Retreat, Shariffa Ali has a chance to put her work on the grandest stage imaginable.
Ali, a New York-based arts administrator, educator and theater-maker, was named Wednesday as the second recipient of the Hermitage Major Theater Award, which will grant her a $35,000 commission to create new work and an opportunity to workshop it in a major city. Ali, flown into town for the announcement, thanked the Hermitage and hosts Chuck and Robyn Citrin for their “radical hospitality,” and she said the award would change her life.
“This is an honor I couldn’t have even dreamt up,” says Ali, a faculty fellow at Trenton Youth Theater with Princeton University. “It’s bigger than I could’ve even imagined. And that’s a testament to the power of our capacity; our dreams are even smaller than what we can do.”
Ali, a graduate of the University of Cape Town’s Theater and Performance division, has a rich and varied resume that refuses to be pigeonholed into any one department. She was born in Kenya and raised in South Africa, and she’s been making the rounds of the theater industry in New York for several years.
The 30-year-old has directed plays and has been a longtime administrator at The Public Theater in New York.
In addition, she has been a lecturer at Yale, New York University, Princeton and Brooklyn College. In other words, Ali has been tirelessly preparing for this overnight success, and she said the Hermitage Major Theater Award represents a line of demarcation in her life and in her journey.
“Sometimes, we believe in some of the myths around us as women, as women of color and as women from the African continent,” says Ali. “We believe that maybe we’re not enough, the feeling that we’re an impostor or a fish out of water. And that’s a feeling I’ve had to quell and put aside.
"That feeling of inadequacy is not me; it’s a system that has been designed to make me feel that way. So in some ways, this vote of confidence is the biggest way of saying, ‘You know what, Shariffa? You’re not only enough. You’re beyond that. You’re major.’”
Andy Sandberg, artistic director and CEO of the Hermitage, introduced Ali on Wednesday, and he spoke a little bit about the process that led to her selection. The award, made possible by an $800,000 philanthropic donation from Flora Major, includes the opportunity to workshop the play in Chicago, New York or London. The Hermitage, says Sandberg, wanted to keep its jury confidential during the process, but he was happy to reveal their names on Wednesday.
Playwright Lynn Nottage, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, was one of the people who helped select the candidates, and she was joined by Obie award-winner David Henry Hwang and Golden Globe winning-actress Regina Taylor, who is also a playwright in her own right.
Three other young artists — Vanessa German, Jonathan McCrory and Jose Rivera — were selected as finalists and will receive $1000 and a Hermitage fellowship, and Sandberg said the jury was given a fairly simple directive about how to go about their business.
“Think far and wide. Think about what it means to be a theater creator and who will benefit from this opportunity,” says Sandberg. “They put together wide, broad lists of who they might know and who they could introduce each other to; They had a lot of thoughtful conversation over many hours to put this together and they narrowed it down to a list of four finalists.
“Everyone they brought to the table was extraordinary, but these four finalists stood out as people that are true artists of our time that we wanted to celebrate.”
For Ali, who has directed plays penned by Nottage, it was truly an honor to not just be among the finalists, but to even be on the radar of artists that she admires.
“For Lynn Nottage, Regina Taylor and David Henry Hwang to not only know my name, but to be compelled enough to entrust me with such a profound award and responsibility is huge,” she said Wednesday evening. “They are the artists I looked up to in my journey; Lynn Nottage’s work has been a star to my theater-making journey. I never even thought that I would meet her, let alone be in a Zoom room with her with her delivering such amazing news.”
Major, who had provided the funding for the award, also brought some comic relief to Wednesday’s announcement.
She said that Ali had given her a ring earlier in the day, and she proudly wore it on her hand as she spoke about the award-winner.
“I just met her like 20 minutes ago,” says Major. “And before she could say ‘Hello,’ she said, ‘You changed my life!’ And you know what? That’s what this is all about. I’m going to cry because this is just so wonderful that I could do this. I didn’t do anything; it’s money.
"I’m so happy that this happened. She’s adorable. She’s lovely. She’s talented.”
More than anything else, says Ali, the award will grant her the time and space to work with her collaborators and bring her art to the stage.
Ali said that her project is based on a true story; it’s about a young singer who cannot compete in a competition because there is only room for two female soloists. So his village agrees to dress him in a girl’s uniform so the choir can advance and ultimately win the competition.
That singer, Vuyo Sotashe, eventually became a celebrated jazz vocalist and a friend and collaborator of Ali's, and the true story takes place amid the backdrop of politically fraught topics like homophobia and transphobia.
For Ali, it's a great story with a universal message that needs to be told. And if she doesn't tell it? The world may never hear it.
“In my home country Kenya, we have a saying,” says Ali. “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together. And this award will go far. I will be able to share this award with my collaborators as we dream up and think of ways to tell a story of a young boy from a village in South Africa that has the voice of an angel. It’s all a true story.”
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