Throw a stone in Los Angeles and if you don’t hit a pressed juice bar or an actor, you’re probably going to impale a writer.
The question of how to tap into one of this city’s great natural resources—its pool of writing talent—is in part what drove Center Theatre Group to collaborate on last year’s Humanitas Playwriting Prize recognizing the best new unproduced play by a writer based in Southern California.
In February 2016, Ngozi Anyanwu, a recent UC San Diego graduate, became the first Humanitas winner. Her debut play, Good Grief, will have its World premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in March 2017.
When Anyanwu won the prize, she was awarded $5,000 toward a Southern California production of Good Grief and a reading of the play at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. She hoped the recognition, the cash, and the reading would lead to a premiere, but it was also her very first play.
"I thought I would be doing this in a basement with a bunch of friends," Anyanwu said. Instead, she now has the stage of one of the country’s largest theatre companies.
"Center Theatre Group has been hugely supportive, and it’s amazing to be working with people who have a relationship with this work because they have been with the piece for so long. They have as much at stake in it as I do," she said.
She gives a great deal of credit to Center Theatre Group for opening both our own doors and others to a new talent. "When the Humanitas Prize was announced, it was everywhere—Variety, Playbill, BroadwayWorld," she said. "Theatres began asking about my play, and asking to read it. Even if people couldn’t produce it, they were interested in it. Half the battle of a playwright is even getting an organization to read your work."
Currently working on her second play, Anyanwu will also star in the premiere of Good Grief, which is sure to raise her profile even further. But regardless of where this journey takes her next, she feels a sense of responsibility as a rising young playwright.
"The theatre world needs to hold itself accountable for the theatre we are making and who we are making it for," she said. "We tend to look to New York as the mecca of having things to say, but that’s not true. We need to not treat our playwrights as if they don’t have anything to say on a national scale." She added, "Local narratives are just as important as national narratives."
Good Grief is deeply personal; the story of a daughter of Nigerian immigrants struggling to process the death of her best friend. "The play is about something everyone goes through—working through grief. It’s healing and beautiful to share that with people," said Anyanwu.