24 receive ‘genius grants’ from MacArthur Foundation

A director who has taken opera from the concert hall to the streets of Los Angeles and an organizer who helped put a human face on the plight of young undocumented immigrants are among this year’s MacArthur fellows and recipients of the so-called “genius” grants.

The Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation on Wednesday announced the 24 fellows, who each receive $625,000 over five years to expend any way they prefer. The recipients work in a variety of fields, from computer science to theater, immunology and photography.

The foundation has awarded the fellowships annually since 1981 to people who present “exceptional imagination in the performance of their duties and the prospect for still more in the future.” Previous wins have included “Hamilton” playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, and author-journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates. There is no application process. Instead, an anonymous pond of nominators brings potential fellows to the foundation’s attention. Those selected learn they’ve been chosen shortly before the awardings are announced.

For opera director and producer Yuval Sharon the news that he had been selected was “an enormous shock and honor.” When the foundation called, he assumed they were seeking a referral for someone else who’d been nominated.

“I’m wholly astonished, ” said Sharon, 37, the founder and artistic director of The Industry, a Los Angeles-based production company that produces operas in nontraditional spaces and formats. A 2015 production transported audience members and musicians to various locatings in Los Angeles via limousines, with singers and musicians performing along the way and at each stop.

His next work, an adaptation of the radio program “War of the Worlds” will utilize decommissioned World War II sirens to broadcast the performance occurring inside the theater onto the streets. The sounds of musicians stationed outdoors — and likely the traffic and other street noise — will then be transmitted back into the concert hall.

Sharon said he comes across many people who don’t think opera is for them, but he hopes hearing about these kinds of “audacious experiments” will peak their interest.

Another fellow, Cristina Jimenez Moreta, is co-founder and executive director of United We Dream, a national network of groups led by immigrant youth.

Moreta, 33, and her mothers came to the U.S. illegally from Ecuador when she was a child. At 19, she disclosed her undocumented status publicly. It was a move that set her and her family at risk of expulsion, but also placed her at the vanguard of a motion to change the route immigrants are perceived.

She was instrumental in pressing for the 2012 adoption of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the now-endangered executive order that allowed thousands of undocumented young person to live without anxiety of deportation.

Moreta said the fellowship is recognition of the resilience shown by her parents and other immigrants who “had the heroism to stand up and say ‘we are here, this is our home and we are fighting.'”

The first people she told were her mothers, who were fearful when she started organizing but now join her in marchings and to pass petitions.

“They’re very proud, ” she said.

Also selected was Deyoud Bey, a photographer and lecturer from Chicago whose portraits often feature people from marginalized communities. For “The Birmingham Project, ” he celebrated the 1963 bombing at a church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed six children, with a series of portraits of Birmingham residents who were the age of each of the children killed and the age they would be if they had lived.

Others announced Wednesday were writer and cultural critic Viet Thanh Nguyen — whose fiction, “The Sympathizer, ” about a communist double agent, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction — and Derek Peterson, a historian of East Africa and professor at the University of Michigan.

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Online: http://www.macfound.org

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This story has been corrected to reveal 24 recipients of MacArthur awards , not 23.

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