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March 31, 2009

Playwright Lynn Nottage wins Pulitzer Prize

Stories of race and gender prevailed at this year's Pulitzer Prizes, with "Ruined," Lynn Nottage's harrowing tale of survival set against the backdrop of an African civil war, winning for drama Monday and books about slavery, civil rights and Andrew Jackson also receiving awards.

In a rare victory for the short story, Elizabeth Strout's "Olive Kitteridge," a collection set in New England and linked by the forthright title character, a math teacher and general scold with an understanding heart. It was the first book of short stories to win since 2000 (Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies").

Three prize winners centered on racial history, from colonial times to the 20th century.

The general nonfiction award went to "Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II" by Douglas A. Blackmon, Atlanta bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. Newsweek editor Jon Meacham won the biography prize for "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House," a best-seller about the populist president whose sympathy for the less fortunate never extended to slaves.

"Jackson represents the best and the worst of us," Meacham said.

"It's a huge honor for me," Blackmon said of his Pulitzer, "but more importantly I hope it really validates the idea that this is a part of American history that we have ignored and neglected, and it's time for a really dramatic reinterpretation of what happened to African-Americans during that period of time."

Annette Gordon-Reed's "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family," which received the National Book Award last fall, won for history. Gordon-Reed's book documents the life and family of Sally Hemings, the slave girl who many believe had an intimate relationship with Thomas Jefferson.

"Race is something that people are quite focused upon," said Gordon-Reed, currently in Sydney, Australia for a conference of Thomas Jefferson scholars and scheduled to give a talk on President Obama. "It's an internationally interesting subject. People here are fascinated by our history."

Minimalist Steve Reich took the music prize for "Double Sextet," while poet W.S. Merwin received his second Pulitzer for poetry, for "The Shadow of Sirius." In 1971, he won for "The Carrier of Ladders" and refused to accept the prize money in protest of the Vietnam War. This time, he'll mark the day more quietly, celebrating with his dog while his wife is out of town.

"I think it's wonderful when it happens, and if it doesn't, I think of all the great people who didn't get honored. And that's a pretty good tradition too," Merwin said.

Nottage's play, inspired by Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children," focuses on the suffering of women, particularly the inhabitants of a Congolese brothel owned by an earth mother named Mama Nadi.

While the political is never far from the surface, it is the personal that mostly concerns "Ruined," particularly in its depictions of the resourceful Mama Nadi and the young women who work for her.

"I wanted to tell the story of these women and the war in the Congo and I couldn't find anything about them in the newspapers or in the library, so I felt I had to get on a plane and go to Africa and find the story myself," Nottage said in a telephone interview. "I felt there was a complete absence in the media of their narrative. It's very different now, but when I went in 2004 that was definitely the case."

She said "Ruined" was a difficult play to write because of the nature of the material, "because the characters go through (things) so raw and brutal, it was not easy to spend time with them on a day-to-day basis."

"I think of Mama Nadi as being the ultimate businesswoman. She's a survivor," the 44-year-old playwright said. "She is a negotiator. She uses her wit and her wiles to survive a very difficult conflict."

The drama currently is on view at off-Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club and is a co-production with Chicago's Goodman Theatre where the play had its world premiere late last year.

Associated Press writers Jake Coyle, Erin Carlson and Hillel Italie contributed to this report.

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