Seattle playwright Yussef El Guindi has won the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award for "Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World," which premiered at ACT Theatre.

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Seattle playwright Yussef El Guindi has won the prestigious Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award for “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World,” which premiered in 2011 at ACT Theatre in Seattle. The annual prize honors a new script by a U.S. writer that debuted outside of New York City, and it comes with a $25,000 cash award.

The prize was announced Saturday night at the Humana New American Play Festival in Louisville, Ky. Two other plays were also recognized, with citations and $7,500 awards: “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them” by A. Rey Pamatmat, and “On the Spectrum” by Ken LaZebnik.

“Pilgrims” is a romantic comedy, with serious undertones, about the budding relationship between an immigrant Middle Eastern cabbie and an American waitress. El Guindi said the award is “a wonderful validation” of his work.

“Playwrights tend to just march along, doubtful about what they’re doing, and wondering if it amounts to much in such a precarious profession. This is like being handed a bottle of water in a marathon run. It just keeps you going.”

“It’s tremendous,” said ACT Theatre artistic director Kurt Beattie. “Yussef has worked long and hard, and he has that remarkable gift of being able to create plausible human beings onstage. This is an immigrant play in the great tradition of immigrant plays.”

A native of Cairo, raised mainly in London, El Guindi has been involved in the Seattle theater scene since moving here in 1994. Now a U.S. citizen and a Capitol Hill resident, he often writes about Arab-American characters in relation to American society and culture. Among his nine major plays, the first to draw national attention was “Back of the Throat,” a provocative drama about federal agents interrogating a Muslim-American writer in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Though he insists he is not a political writer, he noted there “is a paucity of Arab-American characters in our popular culture, because often we are portrayed in the news in a negative light. Producers may be hesitant to produce plays like mine. Audiences might think, ‘This is going to be too heavy, I just want to relax and enjoy myself.’ But I’m trying to make unfamiliar subject matter familiar and say, it’s safe to come see this. I’m not going to harangue you. Hopefully you’ll be engaged and entertained.”

“Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World” also received an ACT Theatre New Play Award and a 2011 Seattle Times Footlight Award.

The Steinberg/ATCA recipients were chosen by a dozen theater critics from across the country, including Seattle Times critic Misha Berson. The same jury bestowed this year’s M. Elizabeth Osborn Award on Darren Canady for his play “Brothers of the Dust.”

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com