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Soraya Nadia McDonald of The Undefeated wins award for criticism

George Jean Nathan Award recognizes her work on how theater recognizes or ignores the subject of race

Soraya Nadia McDonald, the culture critic for The Undefeated, has won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, a major award for writers on American theater.

The prize committee includes the heads of the English departments at Cornell, Princeton and Yale universities and a member of each school’s theater faculty. George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) was a prominent American critic who published 34 books on the theater and co-edited, with writer H.L. Mencken, two influential 20th century magazines: The Smart Set and The American Mercury. The prize, which will be presented in a ceremony this spring in New York City, was established by his estate.

In its announcement, the committee cited McDonald for the “ambitious reach and bracing common sense of her criticism.” In particular, it noted McDonald’s focus on how current theater confronts or avoids the subject of race.

The prize committee singled out her review of the Broadway show King Kong, which focused on the casting of Christiani Pitts, the first black actress to play the role of Ann Darrow. It was “a choice few other critics noted and none studied as vigorously,” the prize announcement said. “In recalling how enthusiastically the 1933 film promoted stereotypes linking ‘animal savagery’ to ‘black male predation,’ and how important whiteness is to Darrow’s narrative function, McDonald pinpointed – and punctured – the incoherent post-racial fantasy of this new version.”

“Characters can be racialized, or they can be raceless, but they can’t be both,” McDonald wrote in her piece about King Kong. “The audience is asked to see Darrow as simply a lady and Kong as a tortured circus spectacle of an animal. But taking in ‘King Kong’ without some twinge of ethical compromise requires either Magritte-level mental acrobatics or complete ignorance of the role of race in American history.”

Besides her work on theater, McDonald, 35, also writes about movies, literature, pop culture and tennis. A graduate of Howard University, she joined The Undefeated in 2016 from The Washington Post.