New Yorker theater critic Cunningham wins Nathan Award

Vinson Cunningham, a theater critic at The New Yorker magazine, has been named winner of the 2021-22 George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.

Conferred by the English department chairs at Cornell, Princeton University and Yale University, the Nathan Award is administered by Cornell’s Department of Literatures in English, in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Vinson Cunningham

Vinson Cunningham

The award committee praised Cunningham for his “lucid, lyrical, and evocative prose, through which he draws his readers into the performance moments he chronicles.” The committee said it was equally struck by his cogent remarks on art, politics, history and culture in relation to the contemporary theater.

Among Cunningham’s “resonant and thoughtful” reviews for this season, the committee singled out his piece on Aleshea Harris’ “What to Send Up When It Goes Down.” In his review, Cunningham reflects on the return to live, in-person performances, and considers the implications for audiences and actors of current representations of violence on Black bodies, as well as the forms and techniques artists deploy “to make theatre new by reaching back to its old, mysterious, ceremonial roots,” he writes.

The committee noted that “Cunningham poses questions, hypothesizes interpretive possibilities, and provides images of theatrical events that have moved, disturbed, or impressed him, leaving open a space for implied dialogue – for his readers to engage and meet minds with him.”

The award was endowed by George Jean Nathan, Class of 1904, “to encourage and assist in developing the art of drama criticism and the stimulation of intelligent playgoing.” Nathan was the leading theater critic of his era, a reviewer with exceedingly high standards. He co-edited the magazine The Smart Set and wrote more than 40 books, including his highly regarded essay collections, “The Critic and the Drama” and “The Intimate Notebooks of George Jean Nathan.”

Nathan died in 1958 at age 76. An archive of Nathan’s papers, correspondence, books and related artifacts are held in Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

Recent Nathan Award winners include Maya Phillips, Alexis Soloski and Soraya Nadia McDonald.

Linda B. Glaser is news and media relations manager for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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