Two Philly-linked plays tie for first at Obie Awards

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Scott Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell in “The Underground Railroad Game” when it debuted at Philly Fringe in August 2015.

There was a tie Monday night for the Obie Award for best new American theater work. And both plays have strong ties to that glittering mecca of dramatic arts: Philadelphia.

The Obies reward excellence in Off-Broadway productions. Founded by The Village Voice, the awards are  co-presented with the American Theater Wing (the co-producer of the Tony awards).

Oslo, the J.T. Rogers play developed at the PlayPenn play-development group on South Broad Street, was one of the two winners. That might have been expected, especially as Oslo is in the midst of a smashing Broadway run and is up for no fewer than seven Tony awards.

Next to mighty Oslo for best new American work was The Underground Railroad Game, written by Philly thesps Scott Sheppard and Jenn Kidwell and produced by their Philly company, Lightning Rod Special. It’s quite a stunning pairing, the huge, sprawling epic about the 1993 Middle East peace negotiations, and a gritty two-hander about race relations, the kind of indie play arising from the distressed-brick-wall school of DIY drama. (Sheppard and Kidwell, it should be mentioned, met in 2012 while students of the far-famed Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training.)  The Underground Railroad Game is a true child of the Philly Fringe Festival, where it made its debut in August 2015, and it  played there again last May. At its debut, Wendy Rosenfield wrote for the Inquirer: “Kidwell and Sheppard show us the social construct of American racial difference” and “help us laugh at the mess we’ve made, even as we try to clean it up.”

Hallie Martenson of FringeArts said the entire Philly Fringe world was “super-psyched” for Sheppard and Kidwell. “We believed in them and trusted that they would come up with something really great,” she said, “but it’s really all them. The way this show has resonated with people has come as a bit of a shock to them, I think, but it’s really down to what they’ve created.”

“The things we’re talking about in this piece have always been relevant,” says cocreator Kidwell, reached on a bus en route to State College, “so it’s not surprise so much as I’m just sort of, ‘Wow, this is cool.’ I’m pretty happy. When people you admire say they are into your work, that’s pretty special.” She mentioned speaking to Dan Hurlin, a performance artist who “opened up a new way of thinking about theater and performance to me.” And she also credited Pig Iron, which “exemplifies the principle of taking things as far as they can go, and just when you think they have gone as far as they can, thinking about how much further they can go.”

As for the unlikely pairing of The Underground Railroad Game with Oslo, she said: “You kind of look at that and say, ‘What is going on here? This is crazy.’ ”

The Underground Railroad Game started its Off-Broadway run in September at Ars Nova on West 54th Street in Manhattan. Oslo qualified for both the Obies and the Tonys because it began a run in July at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, a small space at Lincoln Center, then moved in April to the Vivian Beaumont Theater (also at Lincoln Center) for a larger, Tony-eligible run. Besides its top-dog Obie, it also won for best ensemble, for the cast and director Bartlett Sher.

A third Pennsylvania-linked play, Sweat by Lynn Nottage, won for playwriting. Nottage also won a Pulitzer this year for the play, based on her research among laid-off industrial workers in Reading.