Online cultural critic wins 2019-20 Nathan Award

Soraya Nadia McDonald, cultural critic for The Undefeated, a website that explores the intersection of race, sports and culture, has been named winner of the 2019-20 George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.

The award committee cited the “ambitious reach and bracing common sense of her criticism” in selecting McDonald for this year’s award. The committee comprises the heads of the English departments of Cornell, Princeton and Yale universities, and is administered by Cornell’s Department of English in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Soraya Nadia McDonald

McDonald focuses on how the American theater engages – or fails to engage – the subject of race. The committee cited how, in her reviews and articles about the 2018-19 season, McDonald probed her discomfort at the voluntary slavery enacted in “White Noise” and “Slave Play”; indicted “To Kill a Mockingbird” for its reliance on “white saviors” and “cartoon racists”; identified the constricting norms of black masculinity (and the resistant potential of music) in “Choir Boy”; and located new work by Donja Love, Aleshea Harris and Patricia Ione Lloyd in the long history of plays about “the overall cheapness of black life.”

The prize committee particularly praised McDonald’s review of “King Kong,” marked, they wrote, “by her characteristic sharpness and clarity,” which zeroed in on the casting of a black actress as Ann Darrow – a choice few other critics noted and none studied as vigorously. In recalling how enthusiastically the 1933 film promoted stereotypes linking “animal savagery” to “black male predation,” and the importance of whiteness to Darrow’s narrative function, McDonald pinpointed – and punctured – the incoherent post-racial fantasy of this new version, the committee wrote.

“Characters can be racialized, or they can be raceless, but they can’t be both,” McDonald wrote. “The audience is asked to see Darrow as simply a lady and Kong as a tortured circus spectacle of an animal. But taking in ‘King Kong’ without some twinge of ethical compromise requires either Magritte-level mental acrobatics or complete ignorance of the role of race in American history.”

The award was endowed by George Jean Nathan (1882-1958), a prominent theater critic who published 34 books on the theater and co-edited (with H.L. Mencken) two influential magazines – The Smart Set and The American Mercury. Nathan graduated from Cornell in 1904; as a student, he served as editor of The Cornell Daily Sun and the humor magazine The Cornell Widow.

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

Previous winners include Sara Holdren, Jill Dolan, Randy Gener, Alisa Solomon, Ben Brantley, Elinor Fuchs, Hilton Als, Cornell professor H. Scott McMillin, John H. Muse and Helen Shaw.

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

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Gillian Smith