Theater Review - Kendeda playwriting competition emerges from its infancy

2010 winner Carapace packs an undeniable punch

On the opening night of Carapace, Alliance Theatre artistic director Susan V. Booth proclaimed that playwright David Mitchell Robinson was going to change the face of American theater.

That's a lot of pressure to put on a 29-year-old's drama about a recovering alcoholic trying to make amends with his estranged daughter. But the Alliance Theatre's Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition sets a high standard as a program designed to attract the most creative theatrical minds in the country. In 2005, the Delaware-based Kendeda Fund gave the Alliance Theatre $1.5 million to finance its new competition to identify, cultivate and support the theater makers of tomorrow.

With Carapace, the Alliance presents its seventh Kendeda winner and possibly the competition's most powerful play to date, a milestone that confirms the program has emerged from infancy. It's still too early to expect every Kendeda winner to commence an epic rewrite of national theater along the lines of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. Instead, the program's more modest, incremental successes suggest that it's playing a long game that will pay off for both the Alliance and Atlanta's overall cultural scene.

The Alliance offers as first prize a full production in its season, a gamble that distinguishes Kendeda from comparable programs around the country. The competition historically has valued diversity and ambition — sprawling reach seemed to trump airtight execution with some of the first winners.

In 2005, the politics and gender issues in Daphne Greaves' Day of the Kings felt as torrid as a telenovela. Darren Canady's False Creeds (2007) flashed back to the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, but felt like a melodramatic take on August Wilson's history plays. To their credit, the Kendeda judges seem less impressed with scripts that call for elaborate technical effects or emphasize a heightened, stylized voice.

"This is our chance to stretch our aesthetics," says Celise Kalke, the Alliance Theatre's director of new projects. Carapace packs an undeniable punch but can also prove a challenge to sit through. The 2010 winner benefits from maintaining a perspective that's narrowly personal, not sweepingly historical. It's like the kind of downbeat indie drama you'd see at Sundance.

The program doesn't just reward individual plays and their writers, but also builds a network that connects local theater artists to new talent on a national stage. It may be better if the Kendeda writers don't reside here — they can be missionaries who advocate for Atlanta arts in other cities.

The lingering economic slump has left many theaters struggling to produce new, less commercial work. The Kendeda competition allows the Alliance to pursue fresh work from burgeoning talent. It might be too early to judge the program's success at discovering America's next generation of name-above-the-title writers, but the playhouse deserves credit for showing faith in the future.

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