June 2, 2022

Theater faculty member Shariffa Ali wins Hermitage Major Theater Award

International theater maker, creative leader, director, and Lecturer in Theater Shariffa Ali has received the prestigious Hermitage Major Theater Award. This recently-established and distinguished recognition does not award existing work but rather is designed as a commission that serves as a catalyst for a theater artist to create an original, impactful piece of theater.

“This award will alter the course of my life; it is a true game changer.”
— Shariffa Ali

The Hermitage Major Theater Award (HMTA), presented annually by the Hermitage Artist Retreat, offers one of the largest non-profit theater commissions in the country. Established in 2021, this annual prize recognizes a playwright or theater artist with a commission of $35,000 to create an original work of theater that directly or indirectly represents the role and impact of art in our culture and society. The recipient also receives six weeks of residency at the Hermitage’s historic beachfront campus in Sarasota, Florida, to develop the new work, along with an inaugural reading or workshop in a leading arts and cultural center. Award winners are nominated and selected each year by a rotating jury of nationally recognized theater leaders, which this year included Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage; Tony, Grammy, and Obie Award winner David Henry Hwang; and Golden Globe Award-winning actress, director, playwright, educator, and activist Regina Taylor.

shariffa ali smiles with dark braided hair pulled back with two pieces in blue beads framing her face

Theater maker Shariffa Ali. Photo by Miguel Herrera

“It is surreal and the most gratifying and pleasant surprise to be honored in this way by artists whose work has been a compass in my own upbringing as a theater maker,” Ali said on receiving the award. “The fact that they support my art and wish to carve out space for myself and my collaborator Vuyo Sotashe with this project is a huge honor. It is extremely surprising, humbling, and life-affirming. This award will alter the course of my life; it is a true game changer.”

In describing her intended HMTA commission, Ali writes: “Despite the homophobia and transphobia inherent in small-town South Africa, a middle school choir, their principal, and their parents make an agreement to disguise the town’s most talented and beloved singer Vuyo (he/they) as a girl in order to have him sing as a female soloist in a national choir competition. As Vuyo increasingly feels at home in this new role as a female soloist, they begin a journey that will see them come to reckon with identity, community, and finding a voice of truth.” The character of Vuyo in the play is a friend and collaborator of Ali, so she is particularly passionate about capturing the heart and soul of her friend’s true story through this commission. “It is my hope that Vuyo’s remarkable story and lessons of healing and forging community can be a healing force for us all.”

The judges praised Ali as a “brave and brilliant theater maker” with this idea for a new theater work that “proved clear, compelling, necessary, and irresistible.”

Ali joins playwright and filmmaker Radha Blank as the second recipient of the Hermitage award; Blank received the first award in 2021 and her inaugural commission will have a developmental workshop later this year in New York City.

Born in Kenya and raised in South Africa, Shariffa Chelimo Ali is an international theater maker, creative leader, director, and educator committed to advancing radical change through the power of art and activism. As a theater director, Ali moves her audiences to engage with issues touching upon Black, Afropolitan, and African-American identities. Her directing credits include Eclipsed, Detroit ’67, Intimate Apparel, We Are Proud to Present, and We Were Everywhere. In addition to her theater credits, Ali’s films have been featured at acclaimed film/VR festivals and institutions throughout the world, including Sundance Film Festival (USA); Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (South Africa); Brooklyn Film Festival (USA); Pan African Film Festival (USA); Electric Africa VR festival (South Africa) and DOK Neuland (Germany). In 2022, Ali was named the Elizabeth M. Swayzee Artist-in-Residence at Miami University, where she curated the inaugural Black Roots Festival in the spring of 2022. She has worked as an arts administrator at The Public Theater and The New Group, and she has taught at Yale, NYU and Brooklyn College. Ali is a member of the interdisciplinary artists’ collective Black History Museum and is on the advisory committee of Africa’sOut!, an initiative geared towards advancing radical change through the power of art and activism. She is a graduate of the University of Cape Town’s select Theater and Performance division.

For Princeton’s theater program, Ali teaches introductory theater courses as well as special topics such as “Illegal Gatherings Act — South African Protest Theatre.” This past fall, she taught first-year students from across academic disciplines at Princeton through the First-Year Seminars program, leading “Afronaut Ascension: A Creative Exploration of Afrofuturism & the Avant Garde.” Ali has also directed several productions in the program’s student-driven theater season, including the original musical We Were Everywhere, Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, and an exploration of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel. This spring, she also produced two installments of a New Works Festival featuring several new theater works written by seniors in the theater and music theater programs.

Ali’s commission will have a developmental workshop in a major arts capital such as New York, London, Chicago, or Los Angeles in the fall of 2023.

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