'Junk' by Ayad Akhtar ’02 Winner of the 2018 Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History

February 22, 2018

Headshot of Ayad Akhtar


Columbia University and Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith announced today that Junk by Ayad Akhtar ’02 is the 2018 winner of the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History.


Ambassador 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, February 22.


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


“It’s a story of the transformation of the American economy to an economy where things don’t make money; money makes money,” Akhtar told The New York Times last year. “The play is an attempt at a kind of Shakespearean history, taking events that are part of our national consciousness and transforming them.”


The New York Times also published an article today announcing Ayad Akhtar as the recent prize winnerThe New York Times also published an article today announcing Ayad Akhtar as the recent prize winner. “In his New York Times review, Ben Brantley wrote that the show “unfolds with the crispness and legibility of a conscientiously assembled spread sheet.””


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.


Akhtar will receive an award of $100,000.


Musicals and plays that were initially produced in 2016 or 2017 were eligible for the 2018 prize. The other finalists, announced on January 25, were: Bella: An American Tall Tale by Kirsten Childs, produced by Playwright Horizons; Roe by Lisa Loomer, produced by Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and Arena Stage; Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau, produced by the Atlantic Theater Company; and King of the Yees by Lauren Yee, produced by the Goodman Theatre.


The voting jury for the 2018 Kennedy Prize included: Carol Becker, Dean of the School of the Arts, Columbia University; Kristoffer Diaz, educator and playwright; Gabriel Kahane, songwriter; Shamus Khan, Professor and Chair of Sociology and Special Advisor to the Executive Vice President for Arts and Sciences, Columbia University; Steven Levenson, playwright; Mona Mansour, playwright; Kate Moira Ryan, playwright; James Shapiro, Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University; and Imani Uzuri, composer.


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.” 


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.


The Kennedy Prize contributes to an elevation of the standards of precision, intellectual rigor, and seriousness with which dramatic literature is approached by theater artists, audiences, educators, students, and critics. Ambassador Smith, in honor of her late brother, hopes that the prize will galvanize a new and vigorous exploration of American history and the institutions of American politics among dramatists and creators of musical theater.


The Prize Board of Governors includes: Mandy Hackett, Associate Artistic Director, The Public Theater, New York City; Jean Howard, George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities and Chair, Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University; Alice Kessler-Harris, R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History in Honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Columbia University; Tony Kushner, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright; Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient; and Amanda Smith, author.


To learn more, visit https://kennedyprize.columbia.edu


Ayad Akhtar was born in New York City and raised in Milwaukee, WI. He is a novelist and author of American Dervish, published in over 20 languages worldwide. His play Disgraced won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, ran on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre, 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. His most recent play, Junk, received its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse in 2016 and opened on Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater in the fall of 2017. Akhtar was listed as the most produced playwright for the 2015-16 season by American Theatre magazine. As a screenwriter, he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Screenplay for The War Within. He is also the recipient of an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, two OBIE Awards, a Jeff Award, and the Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award. Akhtar was a Resident Playwright at Arena Stage and has received fellowships from MacDowell, Djerassi, the Sundance Institute, Ucross, and Yaddo, where he serves as a Board Director. He is also a Board Trustee at PEN/America and New York Theatre Workshop.