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PEN America today announces the presenters introducing the 2022 Literary Awards’ three career achievement honorees, and the performers who will take the stage at New York City’s Town Hall (123 W. 43rd St.) for the momentous celebration of this year’s most resonant literature, held on February 28 as an in-person event hosted by Emmy Award-winning late night host Seth Meyers. The awards are an occasion to applaud the New York literary arts community’s resilience in this moment of reemergence.  Musical performances also pay homage to neighboring Broadway’s powerful return: drawing on its demonstration of moving storytelling as a salve, and honoring the legacy of one of its greatest-ever composers and lyricists, and 2017 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award recipient, the late Stephen Sondheim. 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 ceremony dedicated to the vitality of the written word.

The presenters for this year’s career achievement awards bear substantial connections to the careers and individuals they’re honoring or the awards they’re imparting. Five-time Emmy Award winner Candice Bergen, who made her Broadway debut in venerated comedian and filmmaker Mike Nichols’ production of Hurlyburly after working with the director on Carnal Knowledge, will present Elaine May with the honorary PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award. With special attention paid to writing that breaks into new thematic or artistic ground—in the spirit of Nichols’ legacy—this award confers a prize of $25,000 to a writer who exemplifies excellence and influence in the world of theater, television, or film.

May’s 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. Through 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, The Heartbreak Kid, and the 2016 documentary American Masters: Mike Nichols; her innumerable virtuosic and daring performances onscreen and onstage, including her 2019 Tony-winning turn in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery; 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 form a titanic legacy.

Mukoma wa Ngugi, acclaimed writer of works including The Rise of the African Novel: Politics of Language, Identity, and Ownership and Mrs. Shaw, and son of Kenyan author, playwright, and scholar Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, will recognize his father with the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. This $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.

The panel of judges who selected Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o—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, and has—following his imprisonment surrounding his Gĩkũyũ-language play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want)—for over four decades written in his mother tongue.

Lileana Blain-Cruz, who won an Obie Award for her world premiere production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Marys Seacole, and Sarah Benson, an Obie-winning director of Soho Rep who staged the world premiere production of Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fairview, will celebrate Drury with the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award. With this honor, PEN America 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.

2022 PEN/Laura Pels judges Vinson Cunningham, Velina Hasu Houston, and Christian Parker stated that Drury “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 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.” Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who in Blain-Cruz’s production gave an “outstanding” (The Hollywood Reporter), “commanding” (The New York Times) “groundswell of a performance wholly rooted yet vibrating across centuries” (Los Angeles Times), will revisit an excerpt from the play at this year’s ceremony.

The Ulysses Owens Jr. Band rejoins the ceremony this year, elevating the evening with lively jazz—as well as Broadway highlights, performed with guest vocalists Jenn Colella (Tony nominee, Come from Away), Bobby Conte (Company), and Kyle Taylor Parker (Kinky Boots). PEN America recently announced Seth Meyers, whose charisma has carried ceremonies including the Emmy and Golden Globe Awards, as this year’s host. He returns to the Literary Awards after hosting the event 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.

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.

About the Performers

Ulysses Owens Jr. Heralded as a “powerhouse of a showman” (Glide Magazine), a “legitimate jazz triple threat” (Critical Jazz) and a drummer who “take[s] a back seat to no one” (The New York Times), performer, producer and educator Ulysses Owens Jr. goes the limit in the jazz world and beyond. He is a recipient of a 2013 ASCAP Plus Award, 2014 Global Music Award, and a 2015 Jazz at Lincoln Center Swing! Award. With four successful albums of his own (It’s Time for U, Unanimous, Onward and Upward, and Falling Forward), Owens has also gained special attention for his performances on the GRAMMY award-winning albums Dedicated to You (Kurt Elling) The Good Feeling (Christian McBride Big Band.) As an author Ulysses has penned multiple articles for publication and published a Hallmark Drum instructional book titled Jazz Brushes for the Modern Drummer: An Essential Guide to the Art of Keeping Time. His second book is The Musicians Career Guide: Turning Your Talent into Sustained Success. In addition to his work as an author and musician, Ulysses serves on the Faculty at The Juilliard School, serves as the Artistic Educator in Residence at Savannah Music Festival. His passion project is his role as the Artistic Director for his family’s non-profit organization, Don’t Miss A Beat, in Jacksonville, Florida that utilizes the arts as a bridge to a better life for “At-Hope” students.

Quincy Tyler Bernstine is known for her performances both on stage and on screen. Her theater credits include Marys Seacole, (Lucille Lortel Award, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play, 2019 OBIE for Sustained Excellence in Performance); Our Lady of 121st Street (Lucille Lortel nomination); The Amateurs (Lucille Lortel nomination); As You Like It (Lucille Lortel nomination); Grand Concourse (Lucille Lortel nomination); and Ruined (2009 OBIE for Performance, Clarence Derwent, Audelco Awards). She is also the recipient of the Joan Cullman Award for Extraordinary Creativity (Lincoln Center, 2019); 2015 Lilly Award, and the Charles Bowden Actor Award from New Dramatists. On television, Bernstine has appeared in Power, Power Book II: GHOST, Ray Donovan, The Code, and Modern Love, among others. Among her film credits are  The Tender Bar, White Noise, Manchester By The Sea, Easy Living, and Rachel Getting Married. In 2019, she was profiled in the New York Times by Laura Collins-Hughes, under the headline “The Part Seems Impossible? Hire Her.”

Jenn Colella recently starred in the Tony Award-winning smash hit musical Come From Away as Beverley/Annette and others, in a performance that garnered her 2017 Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Awards and a 2017 Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, as well as Craig Noel, Helen Hayes, and Dora Awards for pre-Broadway productions of the musical. Jenn won a Grammy Award for her work on the Dear Evan Hansen cast recording. She has been previously seen on Broadway in If/Then, Chaplin, High Fidelity, and Urban Cowboy (Outer Critics Circle Award nomination), and Off-Broadway in Beebo Brinker Chronicles, Lucky Guy, Slut and Closer Than Ever. Jenn’s select regional credits include Come From Away (La Jolla Playhouse, Ford’s Theatre, Toronto), Peter Pan (Sacramento Music Circus & PCLO), and Side Show (Kennedy Center). TV credits include Feed the Beast, Elementary, All My Children, Rescue Me, The Good Wife, The Code, Madam Secretary, and Evil.  She has been seen on film in Uncertainty with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and stars in the live capture film of Come From Away on Apple Plus, streaming now.  Jenn Colella is an MFA Acting graduate of UC Irvine.

Bobby Conte currently stars in the acclaimed Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. He made his Broadway debut originating the role of Calogero in A Bronx Tale, directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks. Other New York Theater: My Fair Lady (Bay Street Theater); Starting Here, Starting Now (York Theatre Company). Regional: Last Days of Summer (George Street Playhouse); all-male A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Two River Theater); the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s A Comedy of Tenros (McCarter Theatre Center/Cleveland Play House); three seasons at The Many, including the regional premiere of Jersey Boys and a revised adaptation of Lerner & Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon. Film/TV: If Beale Street Could Talk (directed by Barry Jenkins); Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix); Madam Secretary, The Code (CBS). His debut studio album Along the Way is available across all digital music providers. Training: BFS, University of  Michigan; Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. 

Kyle Taylor Parker made his Broadway debut in the Tony Award-winning smash hit musical, Kinky Boots, in the role of Angel. He later earned rave reviews across the country for originating the role of Lola in the musical’s first national tour (IRNE Award, Best Visiting Actor in a Musical) before returning to Broadway to replace Billy Porter in 2015. He was in the original casts of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on Broadway, Smokey Joe’s Café (Chita Award) and Finnian’s Rainbow Off-Broadway, the world premiere of My Very Own British Invasion, and Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert on NBC. A fan of musical theater since childhood, Kyle grew up in Wisconsin listening to both Broadway cast albums and Motown records—a combination that inspired him to make his solo recording debut with the release of Broadway Soul, Vol. 1 on the Broadway Records label in 2019, followed by Vol. 2 in 2021. Previously, Kyle  performed on a track for Wish: The Anderson & Petty Holiday Album (Barry Anderson and Mark Petty) and is currently playing Happy Man/Mr. Thompson on the first national tour of Pretty Woman: The Musical.

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

Press Contacts

For more information, please contact Blake Zidell or Adriana Leshko at Blake Zidell & Associates, 917.572.2493, blake@blakezidell.com or adriana@blakezidell.com.