U of A Department of Theatre Names 2022 Kernodle New Play Co-Winners

Val Dunn and Jesús I. Valles
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Val Dunn and Jesús I. Valles

The Department of Theatre in the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas has named two playwrights as co-winners of the 2022 Kernodle New Play Award, Jesús I. Valles for their play a river, its mouths, and Val Dunn for her play o, possum!

The contest receives approximately 200 submissions from playwrights across the country and are read by a committee composed of Department of Theatre graduate students and faculty members. Named in honor of U of A faculty member George Kernodle, the annual contest consistently attracts plays from emerging and established playwrights. 

This year saw an uptick in submissions prompting the committee to name Valles and Dunn co-winners. John Walch, associate professor of playwriting and director of the Kernodle Award, said “both of these plays rose to the top because they tackle heavy themes in completely surprising, theatrical, and moving ways.”  

Walch said Valles’, a river, its mouths, is a haunting, fluidly lyrical play examining the crisis at the border and the reading committee commented on its “originality of voice, topical urgency, and imaginative use of theatricality.” 

Valles said the play “emerged from a desire to conjure the voices of so many El Paso people I loved and missed deeply during the pandemic lockdown. I wanted to listen more deeply to the people of that city, to the water in them, to all the things the Rio has seen.”  

Valles, who will finish their M.F.A. in playwriting at Brown in 2023, added that “migration emerges as a theme in my work often, largely informed by my own history of undocumented migration into this country.”

Walch said Dunn’s, o, possum!, uses a plucky opossum and a punk rock aesthetic to explore climate crisis and the reading committee commented that “this was a PLAY … The writing was compelling, smart and hilarious … and talked about themes in an informative, theatrical, comical, and powerful way.”

Dunn’s play was inspired by a visit to a friend in Tucson, Ariz., where she said she “was struck by the beauty of the surrounding landscape and simultaneously feeling particularly disempowered to ‘save the world’. Opossum (the character) reminded me that one's community and corner of the world – no matter how small – is worth fighting for with earnest, full-hearted conviction.” 

Dunn, who just started a fellowship at the British Library researching the mythos of the American farmer, added that “I also wanted to write some desert-themed punk songs and have a good laugh.” 

The Kernodle New Play Award comes with a cash award, the possibility of further development of the script, as well as potential guest artist mentorships to further work with the graduate students in the Department of Theatre.


a river, its mouths by Jesús I. Valles: Struggling with severe depression after a string of personal crises, You return to your hometown in Texas, right by the river that raised You, right on the border with Mexico. It’s the summer of 2019 and while the Rio Bravo claims migrants’ lives during their perilous crossings, the people in your hometown are enchanted by rumors of a “Rio Grande mermaid.” 

Old magics are clawing their way out of the sand, out of the water, into the air, into your head, as the dead bodies of Border Patrol agents appear in the desert, desiccated. You’ve come home to make sense of your little life, but the river insists on itself, haunting the mouths of family, friends, and strangers. 

Something in the water calls to you. “Come,” the river says, “Come to me.” Something in you listens.

o, possum! by Val Dunn: The climate is in crisis, and so is the Mammalian Exhibit at Jumping Cholla Community Park – where a Park Ranger ‘deals’ with her feelings of inadequacy by biting off more than she can chew, looking longingly at her mate-me-be-me hero Thorn, and munching peyote with her best friend – the titular Opossum. 

But a bake sale gone awry turns out to be the last [single-use plastic] straw for our under-appreciated Park Ranger … who promptly punks out. At a park without a Park Ranger, things get wild: Opossum proposes eating our young, gluten-free = anarchy, and everyone remains cognizant always that the great hurtle toward death continues. 

How will the community of Jumping Cholla Community Park ever survive if they don’t work together as a community?!… seriously, how?… a balladeering Tumbleweed wants to know.) A (bleak) comedy about climate change, friendship, and dealing with the consequences of our inactions.


Jesús I. Valles (they/them) is a queer Mexican immigrant, educator, storyteller, and performer from Cd. Juarez/El Paso. Valles is a 2021 CantoMundo fellowship recipient at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, a 2019 Lambda Literary fellow, a 2019 Walter E. Dakin Playwriting Fellow of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a recipient of the 2019 Letras Latinas Scholarship from the Community of Writers’ Poetry Workshop, and a poetry fellow at Idyllwild Arts Writers Week. Their work has been published in The Shade Journal, The Texas Review, The New Republic, Palabritas, and many others. Their poetry has also been featured on NPR’s Code SwitchLatiNext Anthology, the Best New Poets 2020 anthology, and among others. As an actor, they are the recipient of four B. Iden Payne Awards, including Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama (2018), and Outstanding Original Script (2018) and they were nominated for the Mark David Cohen New Play Award for their play, (Un)Documents. For their playwriting work, Valles has received awards and support from OUTSider festival, Teatro Vivo, The VORTEX, The Kennedy Center, New York Theatre Workshop, and The Flea. Valles is currently an M.F.A. playwriting student at Brown University. 

Val Dunn (she/her) is a writer/deviser who creates plays, zines, and radical queer joy. Her work possesses a strong sense of place and tackles issues of class and dykehood while pushing against the limitations of form. Dunn’s writing has been presented at Azuka Theatre, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, Philly Theatre Week, Philly SoLow Fest, You Can’t Fail @ Tattooed Mom, The Museum of the American Revolution, and soon at Trustus Theatre. She is an alumna playwright of InterAct Theatre Company's Core Playwrights, Azuka Theatre’s New Pages, Writers on the Rocks, and the Foundry @ Play Penn. Dunn’s work has been supported by the Orchard Project, the Leeway Foundation, Signal Fire, Centrum Arts, the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, SANDBOX, the University of the Arts, and Washington College. She is a 2022 Eccles Centre Fellow at the British Library. Dunn currently splits her time between Philadelphia, PA and Bristol, UK. 

About the Department of Theatre: The University of Arkansas Department of Theatre has been providing exciting and affordable theatre for more than 60 years. The department combines a first-rate theatrical education full of hands-on experience with a wide selection of titles to challenge students and the community. The department offers the Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatre, a broad spectrum program in the context of a liberal arts education, and the Master of Fine Arts degree in six concentrations: Acting, Directing, Playwriting, Costume Design, Scene Design and Lighting Design.

About the University of Arkansas: As Arkansas' flagship institution, the U of A provides an internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to Arkansas’ economy through the teaching of new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and job development, discovery through research and creative activity while also providing training for professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the U of A among the top 3% of U.S. colleges and universities with the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the U of A among the top public universities in the nation. See how the U of A works to build a better world at Arkansas Research News


John Walch, associate professor of theatre
Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences
479-575-7210, jswalch@uark.edu

Andra Parrish Liwag, senior director of communications
Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences
479-575-4393, liwag@uark.edu


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