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Play inspired by act of kindness wins top award at FutureFest

Michigan woman’s family drama earns top honor at Dayton’s annual festival of new plays

A family drama of survival set in a fictional Louisiana town on the eve of Pearl Harbor in 1941 has been named the winner of FutureFest 2014. The play was also voted the Audience Favorite.

The annual festival of new plays wrapped up Sunday night after a six-play weekend marathon that brought playwrights from around the country to the Dayton Playhouse to see their work presented on stage — often for the first time. Judges from New York and elsewhere provide feedback and constructive criticism.

A teary and overwhelmed Linda Ramsay-Detherage of Detroit accepted the $1,000 prize for “Sugarhill,” a play that she said took her only four days to write and was inspired by a historic act of kindness.

The story centers around a white Southern family trying to recover from a devastating tragedy. The arrival of a black fugitive and the hope he represents causes them to defy the racist Jim Crow laws of their state.

“She is a first-rate writer, and the characters are so beautifully drawn,” said adjudicator Faye Sholiton of Cleveland, a past FutureFest winner who teaches play writing. “The closest genre to theater is poetry and the language of this play truly resembles poetry. The play gives you a sense that there is more to the human experience than we can know. It is beautifully layered with symbols and movement and there is a lovely theatricality about it.”

Cheryl Mellen, who played the role of Laura in the winning drama, has performed in 20 FutureFest productions over the years, and said the cast members of “Sugarhill” enjoyed working on the play because they kept discovering new things about it as they went along. She said they especially liked the mix of realism and fantasy.

“The themes are healing and evolving and hope,” she said.

Mellen is one of dozens of volunteers who devote countless hours to planning and presenting the annual showcase. The FutureFest weekend is best known for the ongoing exchanges — both formal and informal — that take place throughout the weekend among playwrights, judges, audience members, casts and crews.

“I learn more about American theater here in Dayton, Ohio, than I learn anywhere else,” said New Yorker Helen Sneed, who has been a FutureFest judge for the past 21 years.

Fran Pesch, program director of FutureFest, estimates that about 75 percent of the time, the Audience Favorite and the winner selected by the adjudicators are the same play.

Other 2014 finalists included “The Paymaster” and “Masterwork,” both by M.J. Feely; “The Killing Jar” by Jennifer Lynne Roberts; “Wash, Dry, Fold,” by Nedra Pezold Roberts, and “The Humanist” by Kuros Charney.

Next year’s FutureFest dates were announced by Brian Sharp, chairperson of the Dayton Playhouse Board of Directors. So as not to conflict with Dayton’s Celtic Festival 2015, they will be July 17-19, with a special 25th anniversary event slated for July 16.

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