Playwrights’ Center Welcomes Core Apprentice Writers

Playwrights’ Center announces its 2023–24 Core Apprentice Playwrights: Kandace James, Malena Pennycook, and Jesús I. Valles. Offered in partnership with the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, the Core Apprentice program provides three student playwrights with artistic, creative, and professional support in the form of a fully funded play development workshop and a nine-month mentorship with a professional playwright. They also enjoy access to additional professional and educational opportunities, and two years of Playwright’s Center membership. 

The Center’s University Programs and Partnerships Associate, Shalee Mae Cole Mauleón, expresses the organization’s enthusiasm to work with these playwrights over the next year: “We are so excited to welcome these three thoughtful and vital Core Apprentice Writers. Our team got to know these writers first through their scripts: Kandace’s quilted choreopoetry of ancestral time travel, Malena’s breathless and sweeping vision of a small family holding onto one another as they change, and Jesús’ mushroom-fueled queer epic of solar expansion.” 

The Core Apprentice program serves each of the writers in specific ways, both welcoming them into a larger creative community and investing in their individual growth as artists. James offers, “Being a Core Apprentice means participating in a legacy of powerful, impactful artists who collaborate and build community in the theater industry, intending to learn from one another and seeing to the actualization of our artistic visions.”

Valles shares the sense that this apprenticeship welcomes them into a rich heritage:  “Being a Core Apprentice feels like a deep welcome into an ecosystem of artists who are preserving an artistic archive while simultaneously trying to invent new ways to keep this form alive. As the precarity of theater makes itself more pronounced, it feels important to dedicate time to establishing working communities that can organize not only around an aesthetic practice, but also around common labor principles. As a neophyte who hopes to return to the classroom as an instructor, I’d like to use my time as a Core Apprentice to accrue knowledge that I can pass on to others who find themselves at the beginning of their artistic journey.”

Pennycook also emphasizes the value of the time that the program offers to early career writers:  “Like everyone, I need time. The gift of grad school has meant making a lot and quickly. But some questions take longer to place. I want to be able to hear what’s underneath the play. I want to get subterranean.” 

Playwrights’ Center Director of University Program and Partnerships, Zoë Rodine, Ph.D., notes the ways in which this year’s apprentices’ unique perspectives resonate with one another: “While deliciously divergent in texture and voice, our Core Apprentice Writers’ work is united through explorations of family, and tells multigenerational tales of the way we’re connected to one another, the cycles and patterns we inherit and those we grow beyond, and the ways we love.”

James expresses the significance of receiving recognition such as this: “Finding out that I’m a Core Apprentice feels like my momma’s smile, like a chin held up to the sky, like coming home to warm hands, like a slow dance, like ‘talk to me sweet,’ like a soft, soft river cutting through the soil, like telling your granny you’re a Core Apprentice and her saying, ‘Of course, I prayed for you.’”

Playwright Biographies

Kandace James is a playwright, screenwriter, and TV writer who uses a poetic lens as a tool for telling magical realistic stories. She creates stories centering Black, queer, masculine-presenting women. What drives her is the belief that there are many ways to exist in this world. James is currently fascinated with the concept of Afrofuturism and Black Westerns centering queer women. You can find her work at


Malena Pennycook (she/they) is a white-Latine writer, performer and devised theater maker. Their plays include Diving Board (O’Neill Finalist; Austin Latinx New Play Festival); Two Apprentices (Kennedy Center Latinx Award); Below (Take Ten, Concord/Sam French) and their solo show Am I Busy Yet? (Cosmic Cherry Arts). As a performer, Malena has developed projects with The Public’s Under the Radar, Santa Cruz Shakespeare and The Flea. Malena is an alum of New Harmony Project, the Richie Jackson Artistic Fellowship and NYU TIsch’s Experimental Theatre Wing.


Jesús I. Valles (they/them) is a queer Mexican immigrant, educator, writer-performer from Cd. Juarez/El Paso. Jesús is the winner of the 2023 Yale Drama Series selected by Jeremy O. Harris (Bathhouse.pptx), the winner of the 2022 Kernodle Playwriting Prize (a river, its mouths), and was named the 2022 Emerging Theatre Professional by the National Theatre Conference. As a playwright, Jesús received support from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, The Kennedy Center, The Flea, Teatro Vivo, and Outsider Festival. For their work as a poet, Jesús’ received fellowships from CantoMundo, Lambda Literary, Community of Writers, Idyllwild Arts, Undocupoets, and Tin House.

Twitter: @Jesucia 
Instagram: TheJesucia