Benedict Lombe has won this year’s Susan Smith Blackburn prize for female, transgender and non-binary dramatists.
In a special presentation at Shakespeare’s Globe in London on Monday night, Lombe was named the winner for her play, Lava, a memoir-monologue that travels from Mobutu’s Democratic Republic of the Congo via post-apartheid South Africa to modern-day London. It is the first time in the history of the award, established in 1978, that the prize has gone to a debut play.
Lava was commissioned by the Bush theatre in west London, where it was staged last summer, with Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo playing a British-Congolese woman who receives an unexpected letter from the British Passport Office that leads her to unravel a mystery. The production, directed by Anthony Simpson-Pike, received a four-star review from the Guardian’s Kate Wyver, who admired the way it “weaves lyrical storytelling with untiring protest”. The play was also shortlisted for last year’s Alfred Fagon award for best new play.
Lombe, a Kinshasa-born British Congolese writer and theatre-maker based in London, said that Lava “celebrates Blackness in its fullness, showcasing the joy, the struggle, the beauty, and the resistance that has maintained our survival … I wrote it because I wanted to make something that allowed Black people to enter a space and leave taller than when they walked in.” She was one of three UK playwrights nominated for the award: Kae Tempest was shortlisted for Paradise, a reworking of Sophocles’s tragedy Philoctetes at the National Theatre, and Amanda Wilkin was recognised for Shedding a Skin, which recently returned to Soho theatre, London, where it ran last summer.
More than 160 plays were nominated for this year’s award. The judges included actor Adjoa Andoh, lighting designer Paule Constable and Justin Audibert, artistic director of the Unicorn theatre in London. Lombe received a cash prize of $25,000 and a signed print by the artist Willem de Kooning. The other nine finalists each received an award of $5,000. Last year the prize was won by Erika Dickerson-Despenza for cullud wattah, a play about the Flint water crisis.