The Kennedy Center’s early years are known for producing an array of successful plays and musicals under the leadership of Founding Chairman and New York theatrical producer Roger Stevens. Stevens, alongside Kennedy Center Productions Inc., brought dozens of theatrical works to the Center’s stages, including Leonard Bernstein’s MASS (which opened the Kennedy Center) in 1971, British playwright Noel Coward’s Present Laughter and Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth in 1975, and the beloved musical Annie in 1977.
Despite these successes at the Center, productions of new plays by American playwrights were in a steady decline on and off Broadway in the 1980s. In 1985, Roger Stevens was inspired by a colleague from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities to create a program that could help secure the future of American theater. To make this ambition a reality, Stevens announced the Fund for New American Plays (FNAP) in November 1986 with the goal of encouraging playwrights and theatrical productions of their works throughout the United States. For over two decades, the Fund provided support to theaters and playwrights, allowing audiences to experience the impact of live theater from contemporary American voices, including the works of three female playwrights: Ntozake Shange, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Rita Dove.
The Fund Takes Shape
The Fund established an annual $500,000 grant that would provide up to $100,000 to each playwright and theater if their submission was selected. Nonprofit theaters could apply on behalf of the playwright by providing a description of how the play was being workshopped at their institution and mailing four copies of each script to the Kennedy Center for consideration. During the first year alone, over 196 plays were sent to the Kennedy Center in hopes of being funded by the grant. A selection committee of artistic advisors was created, composed of eight Broadway producers, artistic directors of renowned American theaters, and writers. In the first year of the Fund, these leaders included theater producer Roger Berlind, critic Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Stevens’ frequent production partner Robert Whitehead who served as the Fund’s artistic advisor.
The Fund for New American Plays was responsible for supporting nearly 90 plays during its first ten years alone, living up to its original goal of “[ensuring] the continued vitality of the nation’s theatrical heritage.” Many of the plays aided by the Fund were later produced on- and off-Broadway and became staples within the theatrical community. Plays like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles, and Robert Schenkkan’s The Kentucky Cycle were all produced through the Fund for New American Plays.
Three especially notable plays and playwrights that received support through the Fund for New American Plays are Ntozake Shange’s The Love Space Demands: A Continuing Saga, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus, and Rita Dove’s The Darker Face of the Earth. These plays were all written by Black women who were known for challenging the notion of what theater could be. Their works selected by the Fund reflect their unconventional approaches: Ntozake Shange’s play challenges traditional theater by using poetry as a source of musicality while Suzan-Lori Parks’ and Rita Dove’s plays use historical settings to write narratives about racial oppression.
The Love Space Demands, by Ntozake Shange
The late playwright Ntozake Shange, who is best known for her Tony-nominated play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf (1976), received funding from FNAP in 1991 for her play The Love Space Demands: A Continuing Saga alongside works by Michael Henry Brown and Wendy Kesselman. The play, originally published in 1987, is a sequence of more than twenty poems all echoing the central theme of love and tragedy for Black women. Similar to Shange’s other works, The Love Space Demands: A Continuing Saga is part of the genre of “choreopoem” that combines poems with music and dance.
In an interview for the Washington Post, Shange describes why the grant from FNAP was so critical: “working in the theater is not only time-intensive, but capital intensive. Unless you’re doing wonderfully commercial work, it’s a financially prohibitive activity.”i Spurred by funding from FNAP, The Love Space Demands had its world premiere at Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, New Jersey in February 1992. Shange performed in her own work along with an ensemble of six actors, dancers, and a live band of drummers, trumpeter, guitarist and keyboardist. Shange continued her relationship with the Kennedy Center in her later work, the musical Nomathemba, which premiered in 1996 as a co-production of the Center and Crossroads Theater Company.
Venus, by Suzan-Lori Parks
Similarly to Ntozake Shange, Suzan-Lori Parks had already written and developed several plays by the time she received a grant from the Fund in 1994. Park’s’ Venus loosely follows the historical story of Saartjie Baartman, a 19th-century South African woman with steatopygia who was taken to London and put on public display in a circus during the last few years of her life. The play addresses themes of love and objectification of Black female bodies and features a unique scene structure that begins with an overture announcing Saarjie’s death and then shifts the setting to several years earlier to tell the story of the events leading to that point. The play also includes scenes based on the vaudeville act “The Venus Hottentot” as a play-within-a-play to highlight the exploitation that Saartjie experiences in Venus. Venus premiered in New York City at the New York Shakespeare Festival in May 1995 and went on to win two OBIE (off-Broadway theater) awards in 1995–1996. It was produced off-Broadway again most recently in 2017.
The Darker Face of the Earth, by Rita Dove
Rita Dove was already a well-known and critically acclaimed writer when she received a grant from the Fund of New American Plays in 1995; she was a Pulitzer Prize winner, finalist for the National Book Awards, and the United States Poet Laurate from 1993 until 1995. However, Dove’s submission to FNAP, The Darker Face of the Earth, was her first full-length play. The work is an adaptation of Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus. The plot of Dove’s work is consistent with the ancient original, but she alters the setting to antebellum South Carolina. The character of Oedipus is now Augustus Newcastle, an enslaved man on a southern plantation, and his mother is the owner of the plantation who gave him away at birth. The events of Oedipus play out and Augustus’ true identity is revealed during a plantation uprising, juxtaposing the ancient play’s focus on immutable fate with the 19th-century restrictions of slavery. A production of the play, co-produced by Crossroads Theater Company and the Kennedy Center, opened in New Jersey before playing in the Center’s Eisenhower Theater in 1997.
Lasting Impact of the Fund
With these plays, we see the effect of the Fund for New American Plays: giving a voice to the unique perspectives of American playwrights and giving new life to their works. Ntozake Shange’s The Love Space Demands did not receive the same accolades as For Colored Girls, but it called attention to the importance of Black women needing to be viewed as people in need of self-love. Suzan-Lori Parks continued to write plays after The Darker Face of the Earth and became the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize of Drama for her play Topdog/Underdog in 2002. Rita Dove’s The Darker Face of the Earth went on to be produced off-Broadway, on-Broadway as a reading, and even across the pond at London’s National Theatre.
At the 1994 the Fund for New American Plays Award Ceremony, Artistic Advisor, Robert Whitehead remarked on the importance of supporting new theatrical works like these, stating: “the theater: that is to say, the theater of plays that sets out to be absorbing, entertaining, lively, and challenging; that discusses the predicament of our lives and our world in a way that is comic, tragic, tragic-comic or dramatic — a goal that is almost never fully achieved, through with a little luck, occasionally some parts are … When it is achieved, it changes our lives” (The Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays: A Ten Year History, 1996).
Over time, the Fund adapted, distributing a larger grant of $75,000 to one regional theater each year with a run in Washington produced by the Center itself. Even though the Fund ended in 2011, its impact is significant; over 100 plays received support to mount new productions at the Center and across the country.