Branden Jacobs-Jenkins was alone in his Brooklyn apartment when an unfamiliar number with a Chicago area code flashed across his cellphone screen. He answered, prepared to scold a telemarketer.
But it was a representative of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, informing the rising young playwright that he was among the 23 winners of the 2016 MacArthur Foundation fellowships announced Thursday — a highly coveted distinction, widely dubbed the “genius grant,” that comes with $625,000.
“I thought I was having a psychotic break for a moment — well, for many moments, actually,” Jacobs-Jenkins recalled this week, laughing. The 31-year-old D.C. native wandered outside in a daze; when he ran into his college roommate, he asked his friend to examine his phone and confirm that the call had actually happened. He still couldn’t believe it was true.
Similar calls went out across the country this month to this year’s crop of what the foundation calls “extraordinary individuals” — among them Kellie Jones, 57, a Columbia University art historian credited with bringing the work of under-recognized black artists into the canons of modern art, and Victoria Orphan, 44, a geobiologist who studies the processes that shape the climate, and Anne Basting, 51, a theater artist who founded TimeSlips, a project that uses storytelling and creative therapy to improve the lives of elderly people with dementia.
“It’s just like a tsunami of gratitude that hits you,” said Basting, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “And then the dreaming starts — of what it can mean.”
The legendary prize comes with no strings attached. It is a “speculative” award, the foundation emphasizes, awarded purely in the hope that a fellow’s great work will continue with the boost from this windfall. Between 20 and 30 fellows are tapped each year, a diverse assortment of writers, artists, teachers, entrepreneurs, civic activists, inventors — all of whom the foundation sees as having demonstrated “exceptional creativity” in their fields.
The selection process is tightly controlled and famously secretive. There is no application, and unsolicited nominations aren’t accepted. The identities of those who nominate, evaluate and select the winners are kept anonymous, and the fellows have no idea they’re even being considered — which invariably results in stunned disbelief when they are notified of the award, weeks before the announcement is made public.
Joyce J. Scott, 67, a jewelry maker and sculptor who took the call in her Baltimore office, said the news triggered a full-blown panic attack: “It really hit me in the head that now my life will change.” When the phone rang at Manu Prakash’s home in California, the 36-year-old biologist and inventor (who is also the sleep-starved father of 4-month-old twin girls) wondered whether he was really awake. Basting was driving her car when the foundation representatives reached her. They asked her to pull over.
The winners must process the shock on their own: They’re sworn to secrecy, permitted to tell only one person about the fellowship before the announcements are made public. “I haven’t told my mom. It’s a crazy thing,” Jacobs-Jenkins said.
The playwright is the youngest of this year’s fellows. In Washington, he grew up writing fiction and going to see plays at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Studio Theatre. His work had already received recognition: His off-Broadway plays “Appropriate” and “An Octoroon” tied for the 2014 Obie Award for best new American play, and his satirical, tragicomic thriller “Gloria” was a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in drama. The MacArthur Foundation on Thursday lauded him for a “subversive, fearless, and risky approach” that challenges viewers “to reconsider the integrated spaces we share and to reflect on opportunities for sympathetic connection.”
He joins an eclectic group of fellows recognized this year for their work in the arts and humanities, including:
■ Ahilan Arulanantham, 43, a human rights lawyer with the ACLU in Southern California
■ Daryl Baldwin, 53, a linguist and cultural preservationist in Ohio
■ Vincent Fecteau, 47, a sculptor in San Francisco
■ Josh Kun, 45, a cultural historian at the University of Southern California
■ Maggie Nelson, 43, a nonfiction writer who directs the creative writing program at the California Institute of the Arts
■ Claudia Rankine, 53, a poet and professor at Yale University
■ Lauren Redniss, 42, an artist and writer at Parsons School of Design
■ Mary Reid Kelley, 37, a video artist who examines the evolving condition of women in history
■ Sarah Stillman, 32, a journalist for the New Yorker focused on social injustices
■ Julia Wolfe, 57, a composer and associate professor at New York University
■ Gene Luen Yang, 43, a graphic novelist who specializes in children’s and young adult literature.
Others were awarded the fellowship for their accomplishments in science, technology, engineering and math, including:
■ Subhash Khot, 38, a theoretical computer scientist at New York University
■ Dianne Newman, 44, a microbiologist at the California Institute of Technology
■ José A. Quiñonez, 45, director of a San Francisco nonprofit that helps low-income families save money and establish credit
■ Rebecca Richards-Kortum, 52, a bioengineer at Rice University
■ Bill Thies, 38, a computer scientist working with poor communities in India
■ Jin-Quan Yu, 50, a synthetic chemist at the Scripps Research Institute in California.
If many of those names are unfamiliar — well, that’s the idea. Though some past fellows were already quite famous when they were selected — such as TV writer David Simon, Tony-winning “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda and best-selling writer Ta-Nehisi Coates — the MacArthur Foundation often seeks to recognize those who are little-known beyond their field, thus bringing greater attention to their work.
That new level of exposure can be overwhelming, said Scott. The artist, often hailed as “The Queen of Beadwork,” was recently awarded a $50,000 Baker Artist Award for her wide-ranging body of work, which includes searing depictions of racism, sexism and violence as well as luminous glass vessels and elaborate neckpieces.
“When you are a visual artist, the world knows your work,” she said. “But it’s daunting to have the world know you in a different way.” She laughed. “I’m rambunctious, and I cuss. I worry — do I have to change that now?”
For all the fellows, a thrilling question looms: What will the grant mean for their lives and their work?
For Prakash, the fellowship represents the ability to pursue projects that are less likely to attract funding.
“I work in a very broad number of areas, and sometimes there is support we can find for a lot of our work, but I find it incredibly hard to find support for other work that we do,” he said. “Now I don’t have to think any more about this.”
The native of India has received media attention for his invention of low-cost, widely accessible scientific tools — such as Foldscope, a powerful microscope designed from a single sheet of folded paper with embedded lenses and electronics. The device costs less than $1 to produce, and tens of thousands have been distributed around the world, Prakash said. They have been used for everything from examining algae blooms to diagnosing diseases to leading classroom lessons in rural corners of the globe.
“I don’t really have a plan yet,” Prakash said of the fellowship money, “but there are plenty of things to do.”
For Jacobs-Jenkins, the gift will translate to time — “to do the work I really want to be doing,” he said. Scott envisions more freedom to mentor younger artists: “All of the skills that people have given me, I’ll be able to share,” she said. Basting dreams of expanding her work across the country, transforming the way our culture views the elderly.
“I love a whiteboard: I’ll put all my ideas on it, and that’s how I evolve my thinking,” she said. “I’ve come to see this fellowship as a fantasy room of all whiteboards; I get to go in, and not just play with the ideas, but then actually bring them off the wall and into life.”
An earlier version of this story mistakenly described Anne Basting as a professor at University of Wisconsin. She is a professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.