It’s fair to say that both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Lin-Manuel Miranda were already having a pretty impressive 2015. Coates, a journalist lauded for his insights into race, politics and culture, launched his memoir, “Between the World and Me,” straight to the bestseller lists. Miranda, already a Tony-winning composer, wrote and stars in the season’s hottest ticket on Broadway, the genre-crossing musical “Hamilton.”
Their year just got better. Coates and Miranda are among the 24 people awarded MacArthur Foundation fellowships on Tuesday. The so-called genius grants are an annual vote of confidence given to some of America’s best and brightest scientists, writers, artists, academics and entrepreneurs. And the big check that comes with the fellowship doesn’t hurt, either.
The calls to recipients went out in early September from mysterious numbers, catching the new class of fellows off guard. For Miranda, the big reveal came on an ordinary day at home with his son.
“I had just broken up with a cable provider the day before, which is the best thing in the world,” he said. So when a call came in from a strange number, he sent it to voice mail.
“I was like, ‘Oh boy, they want me back.’ And then they called twice more and I kept sending it to voice mail, and by the third [call], I was keyed up, ready to be like, ‘Your cable box doesn’t work! And you’ve given me terrible service,’ ” he said. “And then it was, of course, the MacArthur Foundation.”
Similar scenes played out across the country. Classicist and archaeologist Dimitri Nakassis, who grew up in Gaithersburg and graduated from Richard Montgomery High School, said he found out while lying in a hospital bed, woozy from medication for a procedure he was undergoing. (His test came out fine.) And when puppeteer Basil Twist got the call in the middle of rehearsal for his new show, he bristled. “I was like, ‘Who is this, a bill collector?’ ” he said.
Fellows are nominated by leaders across various fields and chosen based on three criteria: “exceptional creativity,” the expectation of future accomplishments and the potential for the fellowship to encourage both. A changing panel of anonymous nominators from different disciplines suggests potential fellows each year, and an independent selection committee — also anonymous — winnows down the list.
Its alumni include creative people who were already well known when tapped — dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp, novelist Junot Díaz and TV writer David Simon, creator of HBO’s “The Wire.” But much of the prize’s mystique comes from the foundation’s tendency to reward academics who have toiled away in obscurity.
The foundation asks nothing specific of its fellows — only that they continue to produce good work. The $625,000 award is paid out in quarterly installments over five years.
“I take it as a mandate to, excuse my French, go out and kick [butt],” Coates said. “I’m supposed to go out and do something beautiful, something remarkable and great. That’s the meaning of the award, for me. They say, ‘We expect big things from you.’ I expect the same from myself.”
Coates’s memoir, his second book, was written as a letter to his son about the challenges of being black in America. Thomas Chatterton Williams, reviewing the book for The Washington Post, wrote that Coates “has indisputably inherited the mantle of ‘America’s conscience.’ ” His June 2014 long-form essay for the Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” also earned him much acclaim. Last week, Marvel announced that he would be writing the Black Panther comic book series.
Coates grew up in Baltimore and cut his teeth at Washington City Paper, under the leadership of David Carr, who died this year. He said that he thought of Carr as soon as he received the good news in Paris, where he is spending the year with his family. Carr “would be over the moon. He would be telling everybody,” said Coates. “I’m so sorry he’s not here.”
He is working on his next book but declined to share any details.
“For writers, the hardest thing in the world is space and time to write,” he said. “Hopefully, [the grant] will give me that.”
Space and time is a common theme in the fellows’ gratitude for the award.
“I’d love to be able to go off someplace for a month to do some writing and thinking,” said Gary Cohen, the founder of Health Care Without Harm, an organization that advocates for health-care corporations and hospital systems to become ecologically sustainable in the face of climate change. The nonprofit group is headquartered in Reston, Va.; Cohen lives in Boston.
“I’ve been working for 20 years, trying to build this organization, and haven’t taken a lot of time to step back and meditate on its future,” he said. He thought spending some time in Tuscany might be nice.
For Alex Truesdell, the founder and executive director of Adaptive Design Association Inc., the fellowship means a bit of relief. Her nonprofit organization, which builds devices and modifications to help people with disabilities better communicate, accomplish tasks and feel comfortable, has constantly struggled for funding.
“Until two weeks ago, I’ve lived a constant terror that we wouldn’t make it,” said Truesdell.
Fellows were instructed to tell only one other person. Truesdell chose to tell one of her co-workers, but she kept the secret from her sister, who was getting suspicious. “She’s said, ‘Al, you just don’t sound so worried,’ ” Truesdell said last week.
It took some acting to keep the secret, she said. “I’d always wanted to be in a play, since high school,” she laughed. “It’s kind of like that.”
The group of fellows includes leaders in the arts and humanities and in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Among the former are Nicole Eisenman, a painter whose work was exhibited at American University’s Katzen Arts Center in 2011; Michelle Dorrance, a tap dancer and choreographer; Matthew Desmond, an urban sociologist at Harvard studying eviction; Marina Rustow, a historian studying medieval Muslim and Jewish communities; Ellen Bryant Voigt, a Vermont poet; Mimi Lien, an off-Broadway set designer; Heidi Williams, an MIT economist studying the forces behind medical innovation; Ben Lerner, a novelist and poet; LaToya Ruby Frazier, a photographer and video artist; Patrick Awuah, an entrepreneur working on higher education in Africa; and Juan Salgado, a community leader whose Instituto del Progreso Latino trains immigrants for the workforce.
Fellows recognized for their accomplishments in science, technology, engineering and math include William Dichtel, a chemist at Cornell University; John Novembre, a computational biologist at the University of Chicago studying genomic diversity; Beth Stevens, a Harvard neuroscientist; Kartik Chandran, a Columbia University environmental engineer focused on wastewater use; Christopher Ré, a Stanford computer scientist; Lorenz Studer, a stem cell biologist working on Parkinson’s disease; and Peidong Yang, an inorganic chemist at the University of California at Berkeley focused on renewable energy.
After that life-changing call came in, the fellows did what they’ve always done: They got back to work. For Twist, whose new show, “Sisters’ Follies: Between Two Worlds,” opens Thursday in New York, the news hadn’t sunk in yet.
“The news of this award is an amazing thing,” he said, “but I haven’t had the time to let it affect how I think about the future yet because I’m so grappling with the present.”
A third-generation puppeteer, Twist is known for his inventiveness in the art form. His work was presented in a 2012 career retrospective theater festival in Washington, which included his two best-known productions: “Petrushka,” an adaptation of the Stravinsky ballet, and “Symphonie Fantastique,” an underwater puppet show.
“I think the light and magic of puppetry is very profound in its simplicity,” Twist said. “It’s about the distinction between what’s alive and what’s not alive, and questioning that and blurring that line.”
Nakassis, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, is continuing to work on a book about the political organization of Greece in the late Bronze Age, as well as traveling to Athens for an archaeological survey and overseeing the digital imaging of ancient tablets from Pylos. The award will bring attention to his field, which he said can suffer from a perception that historians have closed the book on ancient Greece.
People “think the whole country’s been excavated already,” said Nakassis. “There are amazing things coming out of the ground every year that radically transform our understanding of the ancient world.”
And for the next year, Miranda will continue to don his Alexander Hamilton costume for seven shows a week in the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway. He got the idea for the hit show after reading Ron Chernow’s biography of the founding father on vacation, he said, and he hopes that the long break he takes next year will produce similar results.
“I’m flirting with a lot of ideas” for future shows, he said, “but I don’t know that I’m in a relationship with one.”
He plans to give some of the grant money to organizations that helped or inspired him, including Graham Windham, a child-oriented nonprofit group founded as an orphanage by a group including Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth.
Winning the award gave him a “very Willy Wonka-ish feeling — ‘Here’s a golden ticket,’ ” he said. And he demurred on the “genius” title, which he thinks belongs to Hamilton, not him.
“The secret to being called a genius — anyone can do it — [is] you write a show about actual geniuses,” he said. ”If you write it even halfway well, people will confuse you with the real thing.”