David Savran, a professor at the City University of New York (CUNY), has won the Joe A. Callaway Prize for 2008-09 for the best book on drama or theatre. The award is presented by New York University’s Department of English.
Savran wins the award for Highbrow/Lowdown: Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class (University of Michigan Press, 2009). The prize is awarded biennially and carries a cash award of $9,000. This year’s award considered works published in 2008 or 2009.
Savran is a Distinguished Professor of Theatre and holds the Vera Mowry Roberts Chair in American Theatre at CUNY’s Graduate Center.
The book was selected from a large number of distinguished works on dramatic literature, performance theory, and theatre history. The three-member panel of judges, chaired by Una Chaudhuri, professor of English and Drama at NYU, characterized Highbrow/Lowdown as a “work of deeply researched, theoretically sophisticated, and ideologically provocative scholarship.”
American theater, Savran argues, produced its legitimacy in large part by repudiating its links to the hybrid and ethnically diverse cultural scene associated with the name of “jazz.” This charged word stood not only for the adventurous music of African Americans, but also for the music that was stirring up Broadway in musicals and revues—the music, in other words, of George Gershwin. Beyond such capacious musical meanings, however, “jazz” stood for the boundary-breaking excess of American popular culture as well as for its disregard for the canons of aesthetic and social good taste. Highbrow/Lowdown offers a genealogy of the contemporary predicament of theater and suggests that the best escape from its social marginality might involve abandoning the burdens of legitimacy.
An Honorable Mention was awarded to Alexander C. Huang, associate professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at Pennsylvania State University, for his book Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange (Columbia University Press, 2009). The judges praised the conceptual ambition and methodological innovations of this expansive study.
The prize was established by Joe A. Callaway, an actor, drama lecturer, and supporter of theatrical causes.