‘Furlough’s Paradise’ marks 20th year of Alliance/Kendeda national theater prize

Career-altering playwriting competition culminates with a full production.
Asha Basha Duniani (left) and Kai Heath portray a pair of cousins whose lives took different paths in "Furlough's Paradise," winner of the Alliance Theatre's Kendeda playwright competition this year. Photo: Alliance Theatre

Credit: Alliance Theatre

Credit: Alliance Theatre

Asha Basha Duniani (left) and Kai Heath portray a pair of cousins whose lives took different paths in "Furlough's Paradise," winner of the Alliance Theatre's Kendeda playwright competition this year. Photo: Alliance Theatre

In 2007 Tarell Alvin McCraney was a graduate student at the Yale School of Drama, toiling away in academia, wondering if any of his Ivy League training would prove useful.

Ten years later, McCraney was a MacArthur “genius,” an Academy Award winner and the chair of Yale’s playwriting program.

It turns out that those classes in New Haven were valuable.

But one of the most significant outcomes of McCraney’s graduate school experience did not occur in Connecticut, it happened right here in Atlanta when he won the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition presented every year by the Alliance Theatre.

His Yoruba-infused drama about a young female athlete, “In the Red and Brown Water,” rose to the top of the list of competitors submitted by MFA graduates to the contest that year and, as the winner, it was mounted by the Alliance Theatre.

Tarell Alvin McCraney was a Kendeda winner who went on to win an Academy Award for "Moonlight."  Photo: Erik Carter

Credit: Erik Carter

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Credit: Erik Carter

Seeing one of his plays staged by a professional theater company, with beautiful lighting, effective stage design, an accomplished cast and an appreciative audience was a turning point.

Working with the Alliance, including cast member Andre Holland, who would become a life-long collaborator, was, McCraney said, a profound experience.

“Every playwright deserves that amplification, to be working with folks who really get their work, really understand it and get inside of it and find their own way with it,” he said. “It can be life-changing.”

It certainly changed the life of playwright Madhuri Shekar, who has enjoyed success writing for the stage, movies and television. She is the creator of “The Incredible Book-Eating Boy,” a kid-oriented musical that the Alliance mounted in summer 2022 and brought back for an encore run last summer.

As a graduate student, Shekar wrote “In Love and Warcraft” described by AJC writer Wendell Brock as “a canny blend of Jane Austen and Cyrano de Bergerac — as viewed through a geeky collegiate lens.” The play won the 2013 Kendeda competition and kick-started Shekar’s professional life.

“I don’t think I would have this career without the Kendeda win,” said Shekar.

"In Love and Warcraft" by Madhuri Shekar was the 2013 winner of the Kendeda prize. Photo: Greg Mooney

Credit: Greg Mooney 770 433 8584

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Credit: Greg Mooney 770 433 8584

The Kendeda competition originated in the early 2000s, after the dot-com collapse and just before the housing meltdown, when leaders at the Alliance were struggling to find a way to reinvigorate the arts in Atlanta, which were going through hard times.

Susan V. Booth, then the Alliance’s artistic director, approached Barry Berlin of the Kendeda Fund, a philanthropic organization created by Diana Blank, former wife of Home Depot cofounder Arthur Blank. Booth told Berlin about the challenges facing the Alliance and the city. Berlin asked her what she might propose as a solution and added the prescriptive: “Dream big.”

Booth sketched out the idea for a nationwide playwriting competition, and Alliance’s contest was born. This year it celebrates its 20th season with a rowdy, profane and poignant winning play, “Furlough’s Paradise,” by a.k. payne.

Payne, a Pittsburgh native, studied under McCraney at the Yale School of Drama and graduated last year. She drew on her own life to create a story about two cousins, one Ivy League-educated, one confined to prison. The two meet after years of separation during the prisoner’s three-day furlough to attend the funeral of their mother and aunt.

The sold-out, opening night audience at the Hertz Theatre, where the one-act was presented, was, by turns, tearful and uproarious as the two combative cousins sought a de-militarized zone where they could share their grief.

“It’s the best audience you could hope for,” said Shekar of the dedicated Kendeda followers at the Alliance, reflecting on her own experience. “They are generous, they are adventurous, they are excited to see something new.”

Payne said it was “transformational” to watch her work come to life. “Everybody was so invested in trying to build this world.”

In addition to presenting the winning play, the Alliance also brings the four finalists to Atlanta and stages readings of their work. The writers consult with dramaturges, learn about publishing and licensing from creative rights company Concord Theatricals and meet with members of the board.

This year those runner-up plays and playwrights included “The Agency” by Lia Romeo and “The Reservoir” by Jadke Brasch, both of The Juilliard School; “littleboy/littleman” by Rudi Goblen, of the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale, and “Sävë thë Whälës, etc.” by David L. Caruso, of Boston University. They all converged on Atlanta earlier this month.

a.k. payne is the latest winner of the Kendeda prize. Her play "Furlough's Paradise" runs at the Alliance Theatre through March 3. Photo: a.k. payne

Credit: a.k. payne

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Credit: a.k. payne

“It’s a super-packed week of activity,” said the Alliance’s associate producer Amanda Watkins, who coordinates the Kendeda program. While the year’s winner and the four finalists are being feted, the next year’s candidates are being sought and their submissions evaluated. “At any given time we have two cohorts in action.”

There are other playwriting competitions in the U.S., said Watkins, but she can’t think of another one that offers a full staging of the winning play, and that, she said, is critical.

“These opportunities for these writers to be seen and their work to be celebrated — it is imperative that theaters around the country keep doing this.”

Like most regional theaters, the Alliance relies on old favorites such as “A Christmas Carol” to bring in audiences. But, like any living thing, the Alliance, along with the theatrical ecosystem itself, is fed by oxygen from new work like “Furlough’s Paradise” and “In Love and Warcraft.”

New work, along with Shakespeare and Dickens, can speak to new generations and keep traditions alive. In this way Kendeda supports both playwrights and those on the other side of the footlights.

Said Shekar, “the Kendeda program is a long-term investment in both artists and audiences.”


“Furlough’s Paradise.” By a.k. payne, winner of the Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition. Through March 3. $25 and up. Hertz Theater, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-733-4600, alliancetheatre.org