History and Drama Converge in Theater Award Established in Memory of Senator Ted Kennedy

March 21, 2013
From left: Tony Kushner, Robert Schenkkan, Jean Kennedy Smith and Dan O’Brien at the Kennedy award ceremony. Image credit: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

When Jean Kennedy Smith decided to create a drama award to commemorate her late brother Sen. Ted Kennedy and his love of history and the arts, she realized she would need a theater veteran’s help.

So the former ambassador to Ireland followed the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (CC’78) to the Richmond, Va. set of Steven Spielberg’s "Lincoln," where he was working on the script. While there, she told a rapt audience in the Low Library Rotunda, she was cast in the small role of “Woman Shouter” and secured Kushner’s promise of help.

Smith and Kushner were together again on March 4 as she and Columbia University Libraries awarded the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History to two works: Dan O’Brien’s "The Body of an American" and Robert Schenkkan's "All the Way."

“My brother loved the arts,” said Smith. “He and I shared an enjoyment of theater—especially, for Teddy, musical theater. He was also a great student of American history and made it come alive for many of us in the Kennedy family. He was much beloved by all the family and he would be very pleased by this tribute.”

The prize, administered by the Libraries and overseen by an independent board of governors, will be announced annually on Feb. 22, Kennedy’s birthday. It is given in recognition of a new play or musical that effectively uses theater to explore U.S. history. The winning playwrights split the $100,000 award this year.

Kushner, a member of the board, traced the relationship between history and drama back to the ancient Greeks. “There is something of critical importance to human memory, to the way that a society remembers, that drama uniquely supplies. This hybrid of memory and imagination, of systematized recall, and the tumult of dreams, is essential to the health of society, of human community, and hence consonant with the progressive political legacy of a great legislator.”

"The Body of an American" explores the ethical and personal issues that arose from a photograph of an American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. "All the Way," by Schenkkan, who won a Pulitzer in 1992 for his play "The Kentucky Cycle," depicts a period of great turmoil in American history, from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 through election night 1964.

The University’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning will work with both recipients to create websites featuring study and teaching guides, historical research, scholarly discussions and interpretations of the plays.

“Columbia University Libraries is honored to administer the new Kennedy prize,” said James Neal, vice president for information services and University Librarian. “The websites that we’ll build for the winning plays will be powerful educational tools for both teachers and students.”

The Kennedy family was well represented at the ceremony, with four of the senator’s six grandchildren in the audience. Edward M. Kennedy Jr. and his brother, Patrick Kennedy, introduced a video tribute to their father, which highlighted his life as the Lion of the Senate as well as the annual family trips to historical sites that he organized.

Kennedy Jr., who fondly remembered all of his cousins piling into a camper for the trips, said his father “would be so thrilled that there was an award that combined the two things that he loved most, history and the arts.”

In his opening remarks, President Lee C. Bollinger recalled how, when he was University of Michigan president, the Massachusetts senator had reached out to offer him support when President George W. Bush labeled the university’s affirmative action program a “quota system.” Kennedy promptly called to invite him to Washington for a press event, putting his arm around him for the assembled media. “That meant the world to me personally and it meant something on the issue,” said Bollinger. “But what’s so important for us to remember is that Ted Kennedy gave this kind of support to literally thousands and thousands of people over his career in public service.”

The evening also included staged readings of scenes from the winning plays and songs performed by Brian Stokes Mitchell, the Tony-winning actor. Mitchell, who met Kennedy backstage while starring in the historical musical Ragtime, became friends with the senator and even attended the 2004 Democratic National Convention with him.

As a physical embodiment of the prize, the winning playwrights received a print of a painting by Jamie Wyeth, the art world scion, who is a close friend of Smith. At the end of the ceremony, Smith gave Kushner the original painting as a thank you, saying, “This is Teddy’s actual boat and he is pictured and there’s a lady next to him. A lot of people say it’s so and so and so. I say it’s me.”

—by Wilson Valentin