For playwright and poet Brighde Mullins, it’s usually a powerful image that incites narrative.
Recently, it was the captivating description of a young Phillis Wheatley — a slave who became the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry in the United States. Wheatley is the focus of a new play Mullins is writing commissioned by the Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City.
Most alluring for Mullins, who is program director of USC College’s Master of Professional Writing Program, was how transformative language was for Wheatley.
“Poetry had a huge impact on her life,” Mullins said. “This woman was a slave, and writing poems was her venue to freedom.”
Mullins’ own power of language was lauded last month when she was named a 2010 United States Artists Fellow in literature at an event held at Lincoln Center in New York City on December 7. The fellowship, which comes with a $50,000 unrestricted grant, was presented by United States Artists, a national grant-making and advocacy organization with a mission to invest in America's finest artists.
Out of 301 nominees, 50 artists were chosen for the caliber and impact of their work. “They represent some of the most innovative and diverse creative talents in the country,” according to United States Artists.
Nominations come from an anonymous group of arts critics, scholars, executives and artists whose membership changes each year. Five-member panels of experts in each fellowship category recommend winners to the United States Artists board. Fellowship categories include architecture and design, crafts and traditional arts, dance, media, music, literature, visual arts and theatre.
Mullins was one of seven fellows named in literature in recognition of her body of work. Her plays have been produced in London, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and her play, “Fire Eater,” received the Pinter Review Gold Medal. Her 2003 chapbook of poems, Water Stories, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Before coming to USC in 2008, Mullins lived and taught on the east coast at Brown University and at Harvard University, where she was director of the creative writing program.
“It’s really amazing when I look at the other people who have received these awards,” Mullins said. “It’s humbling to be among this group of artists.”
Other USA literature fellows include Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Doug Wright, poet Martín Espada, journalist Charles Bowden, poet Khaled Mattawa, writer Susan Steinberg and journalist Greg Tate. Sapphire, who penned the novel Push, which was adapted into the Academy Award–nominated film Precious, was a 2009 USA literature fellow.
Mullins said she will put the fellowship funding toward research for her project on Phillis Wheatley’s life. Wheatley wrote her book of poems while living as a slave in Boston, and Mullins will visit the seminal sites that contributed to her work, collecting more images to sew into the fabric of her script.
“I want to see the streets where Phillis Wheatley lived, touch the things she might have touched, see what the air feels like where she lived,” Mullins said. “Experience it through the senses.”
In addition to the play based on Wheatley’s life, Mullins is collaborating with Stacie Chaiken from the USC School of Theatre on “Next Year in Jerusalem,” a performance piece for Visions and Voices based on materials from USC Library’s newly acquired Holocaust and Genocide Studies Collection. She is also developing a project based on her interviews with paparazzi and crafting another play to be performed in “The Tower,” a site-specific sculpture located on art collector Steven Oliver’s ranch in Sonoma County. The 78-by-24-foot installation was created by visual artist Ann Hamilton, another USA Fellow.