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Play on slave’s life garners award

Barbara Seyda won the ninth Yale Drama Series Prize for “Celia, a Slave: 26 Characters Testify.”

NEW YORK – An Arizona-based writer, editor, photographer and designer has won the ninth Yale Drama Series Prize with her debut play based on the real story of a slave in Missouri who killed her master in 1855.

Barbara Seyda’s play “Celia, a Slave: 26 Characters Testify,” on Wednesday won the award and $10,000. It will be published by Yale University Press and there will be a staged reading at Lincoln Center Theater’s Claire Tow Theater in September.

“I love theater that is galvanizing, that’s invigorating, that makes me feel like I want to throw up, that gives me nightmares,” she said by phone from Tucson. “I like theater that’s confrontational, and I hope this play will be challenging and confrontational.”

The play is based on the handwritten trial transcript and court records from Callaway County Court in Fulton, Missouri. Seyda also dug up genealogical records, newspapers, journals and letters. In addition, she grafted random street interviews onto the archival material to give the characters a contemporary edge and feel alive.

Celia was born in 1836 and bought at age 14 at a slave auction in 1850 by Missouri landowner Robert Newsom, who repeatedly raped her over five years. She delivered two children and in 1855, pregnant with a third Newsom baby, she fended off his attack by hitting him with a stick, which killed him. She was arrested and hanged at age 19.

The play explores systemic racism, slave litigation, rape and the execution of a juvenile.

“It’s challenging material and it’s heartbreaking and it’s brutal,” Seyda said.

“I kept thinking, ‘Who’s going to be interested in this play from 1855?’ And then any time I looked at the news or looked at what was happening on a national or a regional platform, all of these issued seemed very relevant.”

The play begins in Celia’s jail cell on the eve of her execution and it’s told from the perspective of 26 people, a technique Seyda calls “prismatic and kaleidoscopic.”

The monetary part of the award is the David Charles Horn Prize, named in honor of a man whose dream of having his own writing published was never realized. His widow, Francine Horn, established the prize to offer other fledgling artists the chance to see their work in print.

Horn said Seyda was the kind of person she hoped the prize would discover – a fresh voice outside of established drama school circles who writes passionate plays.

“It’s such a timely subject and she did it so differently,” Horns said. “It just lives.”

This year’s runner-ups were Craig Thornton for “The High Cost of Heating” and Abe Koogler for “Kill Floor.” There were 1,478 entries from 47 countries.

The Yale Drama Series Prize is given out annually for a play by an emerging playwright, picked by an established writer. This year’s judge was British playwright Nicholas Wright. Former judges have included Edward Albee, David Hare and John Guare.

Seyda, a journalist for many years who is currently a free-lance editor for Rio Nuevo Press and The Southwest Center, has been working backstage in theaters – often as a costumer – but only decided to write her first play about four years ago.

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