Alumna wins major theatre award for play that tackles topic of race

Screen grab from the virtual Obie Awards
In this screen shot from the 2020 virtual Obie Awards, Mercer University alumna Marcella Murray, right, and co-creator David Neumann accept an award for their play "Distances Smaller Than This Are Not Confirmed."

Marcella Murray came to Mercer University as a biology major. Although she was interested in performance in high school, her curiosity piqued while working as a set builder in the Mercer Theatre scene shop.

“I was kind of shy about taking my first acting class, and someone just told me, ‘What do you have to lose?’” said Murray.

Earlier this year, Murray won an Obie Award, which honors the highest calibre of off-Broadway and off-off Broadway theatre, for the creation and performance of “Distances Smaller Than This Are Not Confirmed.” The piece explores an ongoing conversation about race, scale and time. She received the award along with her co-creator David Neumann. 

Winning an Obie Award is the off-Broadway equivalent to winning a Tony Award, said Scot Mann, director of theatre at Mercer. Murray is Mercer’s first alumnus to receive an Obie, he said. 

With the award season cut short by theatres closing due to COVID-19, Murray said winning the Obie was bittersweet. For her, the appeal of “Distances Smaller Than This Are Not Confirmed” is how it expresses a common reality. She said winning the award highlights the universal experience of talking about race. 

“The goal in making any piece of theatre regardless of the topic is that you want you hit on something that maybe people haven’t been able to express,” Murray said. “David and I committed to having a conversation that was difficult over time and doing it with love and kindness and a radical amount of grace.”

“Distances Smaller Than This Are Not Confirmed” is multi-disciplinary, combining elements like film, dance and spoken word. Mann, who taught Murray as an undergraduate, said her influence is clear in the piece.

“Seeing the way that she and her partner created that was sort of like saying, ‘Yeah, that’s kind of how Marcella’s mind works,’” Mann said. 

Murray exemplified a Mercer student in the arts during her time in the theatre program, he said. She excelled in carpentry, electrics, performance and writing. Because Murray was often quiet in social settings, Mann said many people didn’t realize she was “probably the smartest person in the room.”

“She was always observing and taking in everything, and you can really see it in her writing,” Mann said.

Although she would have turned to theatre eventually, Murray said Mercer allowed her to find her passion sooner. She said the transition from a science major to a performer was seamless, graduating in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in both biology and theatre. She also holds a Master of Fine Arts in theatre from Sarah Lawrence.

“From that very first play that Scot Mann put in my hand, I was kind of hooked,” Murray said. 


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