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Tony Kushner

Carl Sandburg Literary Award Honoree

Born in New York City in 1956, and raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Kushner is best known for his two-part epic, Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. His other plays include A Bright Room Called Day, Slavs!, Hydrotaphia, Homebody/Kabul; as well as a musical Caroline, or Change, and opera A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck, both with composer Jeanine Tesori. Kushner has translated and adapted Pierre Corneille’s The Illusion, S.Y. Ansky’s The Dybbuk, Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Sezuan and Mother Courage and Her Children, and the English-language libretto for the children’s opera Brundibár by Hans Krasa.

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He wrote the screenplays for Mike Nichols’ film of Angels In America, and Steven Spielberg’s Munich. In 2012 he wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s movie Lincoln. His screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award, and won the New York Film Critics Circle Award, Boston Society of Film Critics Award, Chicago Film Critics Award, and several others. He wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s award-winning 2021 movie remake of West Side Story. He co-wrote, along with Stephen Speilberg, the script for The Fabelmans a semi-autobiography based on Spielberg’s own childhood growing up in post-war Arizona. He also wrote the screenplay for the Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, based on the book by David I. Kertzer. His books include But the Giraffe: A Curtain Raising and Brundibar: the Libretto, with illustrations by Maurice Sendak; The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present; and Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict, co-edited with Alisa Solomon. He is also the author of a collection of one-act plays titled Tiny Kushner, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, and an adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, or The Old Lady Comes to Call. In addition, a revival of Angels in America ran off-Broadway at the Signature Theater and won the Lucille Lortel Award in 2011 for Outstanding Revival.

Kushner is the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an Emmy Award, two Tony Awards, three Obie Awards, two Evening Standard Awards, an Olivier Award, two Oscar nominations, an Arts Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a PEN/Laura Pels Award, a Spirit of Justice Award from the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, a Cultural Achievement Award from The National Foundation for Jewish Culture, a Chicago Tribune Literary Prize for lifetime achievement, the 2012 National Medal of Arts, the 2015 Lifetime Achievement in the American Theater Award, the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award, the 2019 Dramatists
Guild Foundation’s Madge Evans & Sidney Kingsley Awards, and the 2020 Distinguished
Achievement Award, among many others. He is the subject of a documentary film, Wrestling
with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner
, made by the Oscar-winning filmmaker Freida Lee Mock.

In “After Angels,” a profile of Tony Kushner published in The New Yorker, John Lahr wrote: “[Kushner] is fond of quoting Melville’s heroic prayer from Mardi and a Voyage Thither (“Better to sink in boundless deeps than float on vulgar shoals”), and takes an almost carnal glee in tackling the most difficult subjects in contemporary history – among them, AIDS and the conservative counter-revolution (Angels In America), Afghanistan and the West (Homebody/Kabul), German Fascism and Reaganism (A Bright Room Called Day), the rise of capitalism (Hydriotaphia, or the Death of Dr. Browne), and racism and the civil rights movement in the South (Caroline, or Change). But his plays, which are invariably political, are rarely polemical. Instead, Kushner rejects ideology in favor of what he calls “a dialectically shaped truth,” which must be “outrageously funny” and “absolutely agonizing,” and must “move us forward.” He gives voice to characters who have been rendered powerless by the forces of circumstances – a drag queen dying of AIDS, an uneducated Southern maid, contemporary Afghans – and his attempt to see all sides of their predicament has a sly subversiveness. He forces the audience to identify with the marginalized — a humanizing act of the imagination.” He lives in Manhattan with his husband, Mark Harris.

Rick Bayless

Arts Award Honoree

Most people know Rick Bayless from winning the title of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, beating out the French and Italian with his authentic Mexican cuisine. His highly rated Public Television series, Mexico–One Plate at a Time, is broadcast coast to coast and has earned him multiple Daytime Emmy nominations for Best Culinary Host.

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Rick has nine cookbooks. His second book, Mexican Kitchen, won the Julia Child IACP cookbook of the year award in 1996, and his fourth book, Mexico–One Plate at a Time won James Beard Best International Cookbook of the Year award in 2001. Fiesta at Rick’s spent a number of weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

Rick’s award-winning restaurants are in Chicago. The casual Frontera Grill was founded in 1987 and received the James Beard Foundation’s highest award, Outstanding Restaurant, in 2007. The 4-star Toplobampo, which served its first meals in 1991, earned the Beard Foundation’s award for Outstanding Restaurant in 2017 — an unprecedented feat for side-by-side restaurants. The wildly popular, LEED GOLD-certified, fast-casual Xoco has been around since 2009, serving wood-oven tortas, steaming caldos, golden churros, and bean-to-cup Mexican hot chocolate. In 2018, Rick and his daughter Lanie opened Bar Sótano, a speakeasy-style mezcal bar with modern Mexican bar food.

Rick’s quick-service Tortas Frontera has changed the face of food service at O’Hare International Airport, while Frontera Fresco has brought Frontera flavors to several Macy’s stores and Northwestern University. His award-winning Frontera line of salsas, cooking sauces and organic chips can be found coast to coast.

In 2016, he opened Frontera Cocina in Disney Springs. A new fast-casual concept, Tortazo, has taken root in Chicago’s iconic Willis Tower, with plans for nationwide expansion.

Rick and his staff established the Frontera Farmer Foundation in 2003 to support small Midwestern farms. Each year, grants are awarded to farmers for capital improvements to their family farms, encouraging greater production and profitability. To date, the Foundation has awarded nearly 200 grants totaling nearly $2 million. In 2007, Bayless and his team launched the Frontera Scholarship, a full tuition scholarship that sends a Mexican-American Chicago Public School student to Kendall College to study culinary arts. In 2007 Rick was awarded the Humanitarian of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals for his many philanthropic endeavors.

Rick has received a great number of James Beard Award nominations in many categories, and he has won seven: Midwest Chef of the Year, National Chef of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year, Who’s Who of American Food and Drink, Best Podcast, plus two for his cookbooks.

The Government of Mexico has bestowed on Rick the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle–the highest decoration bestowed on foreigners whose work has benefitted Mexico and its people.

In 2014, Rick finished up a sold-out 5-week run on stage at Lookingglass Theatre, where he created Cascabel–offering theatergoers the story of a meal, told through flavor, memory, song, dance, and amazing physical feats.

In 2016, he earned the Julia Child Foundation Award, a prestigious honor given to “an individual who has made a profound and significant impact on the way America cooks, eats, and drinks.”

Shermann “Dilla” Thomas

21st Century Award Honoree

Shermann “Dilla” Thomas is a fascinating blend of modern historian, cultural worker, and public employee. A life-long resident of Chicago’s south side Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, Dilla attended Calumet high but graduated from Olive-Harvey Middle College, an alternative high school located in a branch of the city colleges. He went on to study English and African American studies at Eastern Illinois University, where he was initiated into Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc.

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An employee of Chicago area power utility ComEd since 2011, Dilla began making Tik-Tok videos in an effort to bond with one of his 7 children. Like every parent, Shermann “Dilla” Thomas is always on the lookout for ways to engage his children. So when his then 8-year-old daughter suggested a father/daughter collaboration to produce Tik-Tok dance videos, he was both elated and perplexed. Elated at the opportunity to use social media as a medium to bond with his daughter; perplexed by the persistent thought that he might do something more substantive with his efforts to produce content. Perhaps due to a yeoman effort to keep his dance moves off the Internet, Dilla came up with the novel idea of producing short videos focusing on the history of Chicago, a subject he has been independently studying for 20 years. The rest of the story is, as they say, history.

Dilla’s followers now have reached 83,000 on the platform, and he has tens of thousands on Twitter and Instagram. He is blue check verified on all 3 platforms. His name on social media, @6figga_dilla, comes from his love of the employment trades, as he believes that you can reach monetary success (or six figures) there just as quickly as if you become a doctor or a lawyer. Although Dilla’s focus is aimed squarely at underexposed aspects of Black Chicago, his work continually reveals the rich tapestry of Chicago’s overall history. Anchored in the background as the son of a policeman, Dilla’s philosophy is “Everything Dope about America comes from Chicago, the greatest city on earth.”

About the Awards

Carl Sandburg Literary Award

The Carl Sandburg Literary Award is presented annually to an acclaimed author in recognition of outstanding contributions to the literary world and honors a significant work or body of work that has enhanced the public’s awareness of the written word. Recent honorees include Amy Tan, Isabel Wilkerson, George R.R. Martin, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Judy Blume.

21st Century Award

The 21st Century Award recognizes significant achievements by a creator with ties to Chicago to encourage the creation of new works and increase public awareness of rising talent. Recent honorees include J. Nicole Brooks, Nate Marshall, Dr. Eve L. Ewing, and Erika L. Sánchez.

Arts Award

The Arts Award celebrates the power and impact of Chicago’s dynamic artistic community. Recent honorees include Mavis Staples and Theaster Gates.

Enjoy our Awards archives

Relive the conversations with Margaret Atwood, Judy Blume, George R.R. Martin, Amy Tan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and more!