City Theatre continues supporting Black Pittsburgh playwrights with funding program

click to enlarge A close-up of Black playwright a.k. payne wearing glasses and a colorful head scarf.
Photo: Courtesy of City Theatre
2022 Kemp Powers Commission Fund for Black Playwrights winner a.k. payne
City Theatre launched its Kemp Powers Commission Fund for Black Playwrights in 2020 as a way to support early-career Black theater professionals in Pittsburgh. Through the program, Pittsburgh native and Carnegie Mellon School of Drama graduate Ty Greenwood, the inaugural recipient, was able to develop the play Dependency, a coming-of-age story about high school drug abuse that was staged at the theater's 2022 Momentum Festival.

The South Side-based contemporary theater company just announced the second recipient of the award, who will, like Greenwood, create a new theatrical piece through the program.

City Theatre has named a.k. payne as the latest winner of the Kemp Powers Commission Fund. Described in a press release as a playwright and theatermaker with roots in Pittsburgh, payne is a two-time winner of City Theatre’s Young Playwrights Contest, one in 2010 and in 2012. Her play burnbabyburn: An American Dream appeared in City Theatre’s 2019 Momentum Festival: New Plays at Different Stages.

More recently, payne was one of four playwrights commissioned by City Theatre Company to create monologues inspired by the 2020 census through support from the Census 2020 Philanthropic Fund at Grantmakers of Western, PA.

In a statement, payne says she is grateful for the "space and time afforded by this commission to write a play in the city from which my family has been carving something of home over many generations," and at City Theatre where she says she saw her first play when she was 12 years old.

“I am always so grateful to have been honored and humbled with this work of some Black playwrights: of bearing witness, remembering, and imagining stories that embody the infinite humanity, radical refusals, and spirit of joy and play towards survival that may be found in Black lives of the past, present, and future," says payne.

The fund came about through support from its namesake, Kemp Powers, a successful playwright whose work One Night in Miami was adapted as a film distributed by Amazon Studios. He also became the first African-American co-director in Pixar Amination Studio's history with the film Soul.

Monteze Freeland, the co-artistic director at City Theatre, says the Kemp Powers Commission Fund offers "a genuine opportunity to identify emerging and established Black playwrights and share in the exciting next step of their artistry." He adds that payne was an easy choice, as her work has "lived at City Theatre for over a decade" since winning the Young Playwrights Contest twice.

"Her plays expertly illustrate the hidden gems of Black culture without trivializing our transgenerational trauma," says Freeland. "a.k’s rich writing style is imbued with poetry, nostalgia, and vibrant characters so much so that we eagerly await the poignant new work to come from one of Pittsburgh’s next generations of cultural icons in the making.”