Seth Meyers to host 2022 PEN America Literary Awards live and in-person, February 28 at New York City’s Town Hall
2022 Career Achievement Honorees Announced: Broadway/Hollywood Legend Elaine May, Author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury
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(New York)—PEN America today announces writer and Emmy Award-winning late night host Seth Meyers—an “influential recommender of books” (The New York Times) who, via the immense platform of Late Night with Seth Meyers, has uplifted countless authors’ voices—as the host for the organization’s 2022 Literary Awards, which return this year as a momentous in-person event, on February 28 at New York City’s Town Hall (123 W 43rd St). Meyers, whose charisma has carried ceremonies including the Emmy and Golden Globe Awards, returns to the Literary Awards after hosting them in 2020, their first year at Town Hall, their largest-ever venue, and a turning point for the PEN America Awards’ status as a major New York cultural event. Live music, dramatic readings from selected award-winning works, and a moving In Memoriam segment (recognizing the literary greats lost over the last year), will converge in a celebration of this year’s most resonant literature, propelled by Meyers’ humor and insight. With COVID levels in steep decline in New York City, PEN America looks forward to gathering writers, readers, and literary luminaries, with appropriate precautions, for a poignant and potent celebration of the vitality of the written word.
PEN America also today reveals the recipients of the Awards’ three prestigious career achievement prizes, this year honoring two visionaries whose influence has resonated across generations, and a playwright whose recent theatrical-form-exploding work has provoked urgent conversations. PEN America will confer Elaine May with the $25,000 PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award; Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o with the $50,000 PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature; and Jackie Sibblies Drury with the $10,000 PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award.
PEN America President Ayad Akhtar said, “PEN America is thrilled to be honoring two singular careers that have spanned seven decades; Elaine May and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o are trailblazers in so many forms, on the page, stage, for radio and the screen. They are extraordinary commentators of our times, and of the enduring poignancies of the human condition. As is the inimitable Jackie Sibblies Drury, whose relentless, inspired experiments in the contemporary theater are electric, expansive reflections of our fraught world.”
PEN America Senior Director of Literary Programs Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf said, “PEN America’s Literary Awards ceremony at Town Hall, held on March 2, 2020, was the last major event much of the New York literary community attended before the shutdown. Over the ensuing two years, human connections and sparks of literary culture have been mediated by apps and screens, with countless readings, festivals, and book parties going virtual or disappearing altogether. Against that backdrop, with acute vigilance about evolving health conditions and prudent precautions, we are thrilled to rally the community again in person for this extraordinary celebration of literary talent and triumph. Gathering around the groundbreaking voices of Elaine May, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and Jackie Sibblies Drury is an honor in itself.”
While celebrating these towering talents, the ceremony will reveal live the winners of 11 book awards—recognizing exceptional works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, biography, essay, science writing, translation, and more published in 2021. As with the The PEN/Nabokov and the PEN/Laura Pels career achievement awards, the book awards are selected by judges comprising acclaimed and award-winning authors, editors, translators, and critics, convened in panels whose diversity, in various senses, is vividly reflected in the writers they honor. (Finalists for these awards were announced last week; see shortlists here.)
Founded in 1963, the PEN America Literary Awards ceremony has evolved from an auditorium event for winners and their families into a preeminent gathering of the city’s writing and publishing luminaries and passionate book lovers, who unite to celebrate diverse voices and to catapult new writers to prominence. Across the event, $350,000 in awards will be granted to writers and translators.
PEN America is actively monitoring and updating protocols alongside certified COVID safety officers working in New York live event venues, including on Broadway, and following all state and local health guidelines. All attendees, as well as performers, staff, and crew, will be required to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19 (fully vaccinated) and photo ID prior to entering the venue and will be required to wear a mask that covers the nose and mouth at all times.
PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature
Founded in 2016 in collaboration with the Vladimir Nabokov Literary Foundation, the $50,000 award is conferred annually to a living author whose body of work—either written in or translated into English—represents the highest level of achievement in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and/or drama, and is of enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship. Previous winners of the award include Anne Carson, M. NourbeSe Philip, Sandra Cisneros, Edna O’Brien, and Adonis.
Kenyan author, playwright, and scholar Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a “perennial Nobel Prize favorite” (Washington Post) who “has dedicated his life to describing, satirizing and destabilizing the corridors of power” (The Guardian), is the 2022 recipient of this honor. The panel of judges who selected him—Laila Lalami, David Treuer, and Mónica de la Torre—note his novels Weep Not Child, A Grain of Wheat, The River Between, and Wizard of the Crow for portraying, with “great honesty and sensitivity,” the “lasting divisions that colonial rule sowed within families and cultures, the damage wrought by the dictatorships that followed independence, and the joys of finding freedom in all its forms—personal, political, and linguistic.” Since 1962, when his literary career boldly began with performances of his play The Black Hermit, Thiong’o has written works of equal political potency (frequently, across the decades, deemed dangerous and suppressed by authoritarian, neocolonial powers) and lyricism, often centering a multitude of voices and protagonists. He has produced dozens of novels, short stories, plays, and memoirs.
Both his first play and first novel, 1964’s Weep Not, Child, were the first of either form from East Africa published in English. In the late 1970s, however, Thiong’o began turning towards writing primarily in Gĩkũyũ, stating in his influential 1986 book of essays, Decolonising the Mind, “I believe that my writing in Gĩkũyũ language, a Kenyan language, an African language, is part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples…I do not want to see Kenyan children growing up in [the] imperialist-imposed tradition of contempt for the tools of communication developed by their communities and their history. I want them to transcend colonial alienation.” The premiere run of his play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), written with Ngugi wa Mirii in Gĩkũyũ and performed in Kamiriithu in 1977 at the education and cultural center he helped found with the local community, was terminated by the government, and resulted in his arrest. “I began to realize the whole point of jailing a scholar or writer or theater artist was to make sure he had no more contact with the people,” he reflected in 1985, in the journal Research in African Literatures.
This reaction revealed the very importance of continuing to write in Gĩkũyũ. Thiong’o described to NPR in 2020, in an interview surrounding the publication of The Perfect Nine, an acclaimed mythological novel in verse, “Before , I had written a few plays in English, and novels in English, and I had not been in prison for being critical of the post-colonial system. So why now? And that question is what set in motion my thinking about the unequal and unequal relationship of power between languages. That thinking made me say no—from now onwards, I’ll be writing in my mother tongue.” He wrote his next novel, 1980’s Devil on the Cross, from prison, on toilet paper—in Gĩkũyũ.
Laila Lalami, David Treuer, and Mónica de la Torre, the panel of judges who selected this year’s eminent recipient, said of the writer, “Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a transformative figure in African literature. For nearly 60 years, he has been committed to telling the stories of a country and a people whose political destiny was brutally interrupted by outsiders. His refusal to be silenced and his insistence on the value of indigenous languages has inspired a generation of younger writers.”
PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award
The honorary PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award confers a prize of $25,000 to a writer who exemplifies excellence and influence in the world of theater, television, or film. The award aims to highlight a writer whose transformative work enlightens and inspires audiences in the tradition of venerated comedian and filmmaker Mike Nichols, who died in 2014. In the spirit of Nichols’s legacy, special attention is paid to writing that breaks into new thematic or artistic ground. Previous winners include George C. Wolfe, Tom Stoppard, and Kenneth Lonergan.
PEN America honors the legendary Elaine May—whose Broadway career began in conjunction with Nichols’, through their iconic and “wholly original” (The New Yorker, in 1961) improvisation comedy duo act Nichols and May, and who directed the 2016 documentary American Masters: Mike Nichols about her friend and collaborator—with this year’s award. The organization celebrates her with the prestigious prize two months before her 90th birthday. May won a 2019 Tony for her performance (her first for acting) in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, which Vogue called “the most thrilling theater performance of the year.” PEN America is recognizing her for her titanic legacy as a writer, performer, and director across theater, film, and television.
Whether for her screenplays of era-defining comedies including the nine-Academy-Award-nominated Heaven Can Wait and the Mike Nichols-directed The Birdcage and Primary Colors; her direction of the critically acclaimed A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid; her innumerable virtuosic and daring performances onstage and onscreen; her staggering influence on generations of comedians from the 1960s to today; Elaine May’s playful, searingly witty contributions to just about every realm of culture cannot be understated.
From the judges’ citation: “A comedy pioneer, a screenwriting legend, a trailblazing auteur, and singular presence on stage and screen, Elaine May’s brilliance and originality have delighted audiences and influenced other artists for decades. Throughout her work, an extraordinary comedic instinct illuminates our very humanity.”
PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award
Each year, the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award confers upon an American playwright in mid-career, with an outstanding voice working indisputably at the highest level of achievement, a $10,000 cash prize. The award was developed to reflect Laura Pels’s dedication to supporting excellence in American theater, as well as PEN America’s commitment to recognizing and rewarding the playwright’s literary accomplishments. Recent winners have included Daniel Alexander Jones, Tanya Barfield, Larissa Fasthorse, Sibyl Kempson, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Young Jean Lee, and Anne Washburn.
2022 PEN/Laura Pels judges Vinson Cunningham, Velina Hasu Houston, and Christian Parker have selected Jackie Sibblies Drury as this year’s recipient, stating that she “gives voice to the voiceless, exploring freshly investigated worlds from the inside out so that they become part of the natural landscape of the theater.”
Drury’s debut full-length play—We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, about a group of actors in a rehearsal space attempting to stage a performance about the genocide of the Herero people—offered audiences an introduction to a playwright who would become known for her activation of formal adventurousness in service of impeccably sculpted social commentary. Continuing to find new ways to simultaneously reframe theater and society in wrenchingly lucid visions of our world, Drury’s subsequent works—the Pulitzer Prize-winning, self-inverting meditation on the hegemony of the white gaze in both theater and American society, Fairview, and her chronology- collapsing, multiplying bio-drama Marys Seacole— garnered vast acclaim.
The judges add, “Drury’s plays make the case that the dynamism and circularity of the theatrical experience cannot be easily duplicated in other media. She shifts the theater panorama to encompass new vistas of race, class, and exploded perspective into what traditionally have been rigid environments. Drury is exceptional among her peers in her finely honed ability to innovate in both form and content simultaneously, as she opens doors to colorful worlds and invites the theater-goers of America to the realities—and the challenges—of a polycultural society. With a deft hand, stark vision, and genuine ardor, she asks the world to make itself comfortable in the fruitful discomfort she creates, and brings thorough intellectualism balanced with emotional timbre to her artistic expression. She asks the world to make itself comfortable in the fruitful discomfort she creates. The judges are honored to illuminate her words and work with this award.”
About Seth Meyers
Seth Meyers is an Emmy Award-winning writer and host of NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers.
Meyers hosted the Primetime Emmy Awards in 2014 and was Emmy nominated in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series. In 2018 he hosted the Golden Globe Awards, which was Emmy nominated for Outstanding Variety Special.
In 2019, he released his debut standup special, Lobby Baby, on Netflix, which was Emmy nominated for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special. In 2021, he received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Short Form Comedy, Drama or Variety Series for his weekly Late Night YouTube series, Corrections, which debuted in the same year.
Late Night won back-to-back Critics’ Choice Awards for Best Talk Show in 2020-21. In addition, Meyers was named one of the 2014 TIME 100, Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.
Meyers began his TV career with Saturday Night Live in 2001, where he was a cast member for 13 seasons. He served as head writer for nine seasons and Weekend Update anchor for eight. In 2011, Meyers won the Emmy for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics for host Justin Timberlake’s musical monologue. In all, Meyers has garnered 27 Emmy nominations for his work in television.
Meyers currently serves as an executive producer of The Amber Ruffin Show on Peacock, and as co-creator and executive producer alongside Fred Armisen and Bill Hader of IFC’s Emmy-nominated docu-parody series Documentary Now! He executive produced and lent his voice to Hulu’s animated superhero show The Awesomes and executive produced A.P. Bio for NBC and Peacock.
Meyers hosted the 2010 and 2011 ESPY Awards on ESPN and headlined the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Assn. dinner to rave reviews.
His first children’s book, I’m Not Scared, You’re Scared, will be released on March 15.
About Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
One of the leading writers and scholars at work today, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was born in Limuru, Kenya, in 1938. He is the author of the novels A Grain of Wheat; Weep Not, Child; and Petals of Blood, as well as Birth of a Dream Weaver, Wrestling with the Devil, Minutes of Glory, and The Perfect Nine. He is also an essayist, playwright, editor, and social activist. Currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature and the director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California, Irvine, Ngũgĩ is the recipient of thirteen honorary doctorates, among other awards, and has been nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.
About Elaine May
Elaine May is a comedian, film director, screenwriter, playwright, and actress. May’s comedy act with Mike Nichols, Nichols and May, was a breakout success in comedy clubs and on Broadway, and the duo won a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album in 1962 for An Evening With Mike Nichols And Elaine May. May wrote and directed the films A New Leaf, which she also starred in, Mickey and Nicky, and Ishtar. She also directed the beloved romantic comedy The Heartbreak Kid. As a screenwriter she received BAFTA and an Academy Award nomination for Primary Colors. She also received an Oscar nomination for Heaven Can Wait. In 2019 she received a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for The Waverly Gallery, directed by Kenneth Lonergan. May was awarded the National Medal of Arts for her contributions to American comedy by President Barack Obama in 2013, and will receive an honorary Academy Award this year.
About Jackie Sibblies Drury
Jackie Sibblies Drury is a Brooklyn-based playwright whose critically acclaimed play Fairview won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Her other plays include We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, Really, Social Creatures, and Marys Seacole. Drury’s plays have been presented by Young Vic, Lincoln Center Theatre, Soho Rep., Berkeley Rep, New York City Players & Abrons Arts Center, Victory Gardens, Trinity Rep, Woolly Mammoth, Undermain Theatre, InterAct Theatre, Actors Theater of Louisville, Company One, and The Bush Theatre. Drury has developed her work at Sundance, Bellagio Center, Ground Floor at Berkeley Rep, Soho Rep. Writer/Director Lab, New York Theatre Workshop, Bushwick Starr, LARK, and MacDowell Colony, among others. She has received the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, a Jerome Fellowship at The LARK, a United States Artists Fellowship, a Helen Merrill Playwriting Award, and a Windham-Campbell Literary Prize in Drama.
About PEN America
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org