Monday’s announcement of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners felt like a beam of light shining through the gloomy, overcast mood in the world of journalism since the Trump Administration declared the press the “enemy of the people.” The failing New York Times won three awards; the New York Daily News and ProPublica won together for their work investigating the New York Police Department; the Washington Post‘s David Fahrenthold won the national reporting prize for his coverage of Donald Trump’s philanthropy.
In the more creative categories, playwright Lynn Nottage won her second Pulitzer for her new play, Sweat; Colson Whitehead won the fiction prize for his novel, The Underground Railroad, which also won the National Book Award (and which Moonlight director Barry Jenkins is adapting for television); and Hilton Als won the award for criticism, the second New Yorker critic to earn the distinction in as many years. (TV critic Emily Nussbaum won last year.)
Als’s win felt particularly satisfying; the drama critic has published so much earth-shatteringly-good work over the past two decades, it’s a wonder this is his first Pulitzer. A New Yorker staff writer since 1994, Als previously worked as a staff writer for the Village Voice and an editor-at-large at Vibe. He’s published only two books, 1996’s The Women and 2013’s White Girls, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. I can’t think of a living critic more deserving of this award (like I said, Emily Nussbaum’s already won it). Below, we’ve rounded up a selection of some of Als’s most insightful essays and reviews, at least those that are available online.
“Black Lives Matter Onstage” (The New Yorker, 11/28/2016)
Appropriately enough, this piece tackles Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning play Sweat as well as fellow Pulitzer winner Suzan Lori-Parks — the first black woman to win the prize, in 2002 — whose 1990 play The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World AKA The Negro Book of the Dead was remounted last year. As he often does, Als uses his own biography as a foil for his subject:
Aside from the gay male postwar writers I revered as a teen-ager (Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, mid-to-late William Inge), the playwrights I learned the most from were women of color. I never entirely forsook the theatre I saw as a kid—agitprop grows out of agitation, and that’s interesting, too—but what I discovered, as I read and saw works by Alice Childress, Adrienne Kennedy, and Ntozake Shange, then Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage, and, most recently, Dominique Morisseau, was that there was, and is, a broader perspective out there, one in which “the man” wasn’t the entire issue: being was. Those women playwrights of color made the recognizable unrecognizable—which is to say, they made it art.
“Martin McDonagh’s Repressed, Explosive World” (The New Yorker, 1/30/2017)
In this review of Irish playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane, which recently ended its run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Als calls McDonagh “one of the best theatrical minds we have on myth and its offshoot.” He continues:
McDonagh’s dramatic world is defined by power and filled with cruelty and injustice; the bad guy takes center stage but doesn’t always get called out. When he revels in his wrongdoing, he’s so sly and funny that we forget to disapprove until it’s too late—and then we feel doubly guilty for having enjoyed swimming in all that filth. Part of what makes McDonagh’s plays so upsetting is that he’s a proper moralist, with a severe heart and a weird acceptance of the worst.
“White Girls” (Guernica, 10/14/2013)
This excerpt from Als’s same-named book encompasses everything that makes the collection of essays so powerful and poignant. Als explores his one-time friendship with a man he calls “SL” (Sir or Lady), which leads to a meditation on sex, gender, love, and identity:
He and his mother had grown up in what Shulamith Firestone called “shared oppression,” The difference was she believed it: Wasn’t her pain the pain you suffered for family? Later SL would withstand mountains of pain for his family. But in the early nineteen seventies he did two things: He got out, if only he could get out. That is, SL moved forward into his future, but his past resented it. He had boundless hope, but his past thought otherwise. Leaving home, he would kiss white women, or they would kiss him, with no expectation and every expectation, and then—sometimes—he would turn to me and love me as he had been loved in his past, walking in the Black Forest or wherever, tagging along behind his parents in his Eton cap, wondering about the forest worms as he served as an audience for his parents’ follies, their seemingly endless marital drama of acceptance and rejection, a form of theater many mothers, for instance, try to justify by saying, We’re staying together for the kids’ sake. That’s the first lie of family. It’s never for the kids’ sake.
“Moonlight Undoes Our Expectations” (10/24/2016)
When I saw Moonlight, as soon as it was over, my first thought was, I can’t wait until Hilton Als writes about this movie. I didn’t have to wait long. Als’s essay on the Oscar-winning film expresses a sentiment similar to what would have been director Barry Jenkins’s acceptance speech, and the speech Tarell Alvin McCraney — who wrote the play that Moonlight is based on — gave when he recently accepted a GLAAD award. That sentiment, in a word, is amazement:
Did I ever imagine, during my anxious, closeted childhood, that I’d live long enough to see a movie like “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’s brilliant, achingly alive new work about black queerness? Did any gay man who came of age, as I did, in the era of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and AIDS, think he’d survive to see a version of his life told onscreen with such knowledge, unpredictability, and grace?
“Michael” (The New York Review of Books, 8/13/2009)
Has anyone ever written a better, more comprehensive, more nuanced and understanding piece on Michael Jackson than this essay Als published in the New York Review of Books just a couple months after the singer’s tragic death? No, no one ever has:
The Jackson Five were America’s first internationally recognized black adolescent boy band. They were as smooth as the Ink Spots, but there was a hint of wildness and pathos in Michael Jackson’s rough-boy soprano, which, with its Jackie Wilson– and James Brown–influenced yelps, managed to remain just this side of threatening. He never changed that potent formula, not even after he went solo, more or less permanently, in 1978 at the age of twenty. Early on, he recognized the power mainstream stardom held—a chance to defend himself and his mother from the violent ministrations of his father, Joe Jackson (who famously has justified his tough parenting, his whippings, as a catalyst for his children’s success), and to wrest from the world what most performers seek: a nonfractured mirroring.
“Beywatch” (The New Yorker, 5/30/2016)
Like Moonlight, Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade cried out for the Als treatment, and it got it, although fans of the album and its powerful imagery may have been disappointed by Als’s tough love for Queen Bey’s newly politicized work:
“Formation” is, of course, the process of becoming, of being formed. Badu has worked to form herself as an artist, even when it has meant jeopardizing her popularity. (In a fantastic 1976 Rolling Stone piece about Janis Joplin, the music critic Ellen Willis wrote that Joplin had “suffered the worst fate that can befall an adolescent girl in America—unpopularity.”) Beyoncé, however, would never risk being unpopular; she wouldn’t know what the world was without her star hovering above it, even if it’s sometimes obscured by man-shaped clouds.