Erika Dickerson-Despenza is no stranger to accolades. Among her honors, she is the Public Theater’s first ever Ntozake Shange Social Justice Theater Playwright-in-Residence, a fellowship she established to honor her “literary mother.”

But receiving the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award on March 2 was something special – an honor for words on the page.

“It is a literary award and I’m sitting in rooms full of people whose books I have read and want to read, and I’m being honored among those people,” she said backstage after winning the award. “I am so very honored. As a queer, Black woman in the industry of theater, to be honored at a literary award gathering is important to me.”

The award was presented by actor and choreographer Adesola Osakalumi, who worked with Dickerson-Despenza on her Susan Smith Blackburn Prize-winning play cullud wattah, a drama inspired by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. 

“I have been enriched by her mind, her passion, her heart, her curiosity, and unrelenting love for Black women,” Osakalumi said. 

Actress Lizan Mitchell took the stage to perform a monologue from Dickerson-Despenza’s latest work, shadow/land, the first of a 10-play Katrina Cycle, which takes on climate and water crises in and beyond New Orleans and the Midwest. It premieres April 20 at the Public Theater.

Adesola Osakalumi, Erika Dickerson-Despenza, and Lizan Mitchell backstage at the 2023 PEN America Literary Awards.

Adesola Osakalumi, Erika Dickerson-Despenza, and Lizan Mitchell backstage at the 2023 PEN America Literary Awards.


Dickerson-Despenza attended the PEN America awards with her mother, and said she was honored to be recognized by an organization she has long admired.

“I’ve loved this organization for a long time, and I was always looking for ways to get involved, and so it was really cool that I just got this call that they’re honoring me for my work when I’ve admired theirs for so long,” she said.

“I think a lot of the time, dramatic writers don’t always think we are also a part of literature. And I hope to be read as much if not more than I hope to be produced, honestly, because we recognize that literature lasts, even when performances end. So, to be among this glorious organization whose work I really do believe in, and these fabulous peers who are critical thinkers and are changing the way we look at words and language and what it can do… it’s really filling.”

The PEN/Laura Pels award is conferred annually “to an American playwright with an outstanding voice, working indisputably at the highest level of achievement.” This year’s judges were Luis Alfaro and Saheem Ali.

Past winners include Sarah Ruhl, Lynn Nottage, Tony Kushner, and Paula Vogel.

“I always talk in my rehearsal rooms about how literature lasts. Our technologies with our videos and recordings and things – they won’t be able to open that far in the future. Technology advances. I do hope the archives will have a place, but we know that literature lasts,” she said. “And so to recognize literature and my dramatic work on and beyond the page is super special, and I will always remember this night.”