Art History, Center Stage

Artists John Biggers, Samella Lewis & Others Come to Life on Stage

Misty Brown and Dianne Whitfield-Locke

Viktor Lowenfeld (center) looking over the work of two of the first Hampton students to receive art fellowships, Michael Portilla (left) and Joseph Gilliard (right), 1941.  Hampton University Museum and Archives.Jacqueline Lawton and Hazel Biggers, wife of the late John Biggers, Washington, DC, 2012. Photo: J. Lawton collectionWashington, D.C.-based playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton's new play, The Hampton Years, is about artists John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Samella Lewis, Charles White and art professor Viktor Lowenfeld, the Austrian Jewish immigrant who created the art department at Hampton University. The Hampton Years celebrates the legacy of these outstanding artists and honors the stewardship of their great work.

Named one the nation's 30 leading black playwrights by Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute, Lawton has received numerous awards.  She was nominated for the coveted Wendy Wasserstein Prize, and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark Play Development Center.

IRAAA: Tell us a little about your experiences researching and developing The Hampton Years?

Jacqueline Lawton: The Hampton Years examines the impact of World War II on Jewish immigrants living in the United States and their role in shaping the lives and careers of African American students in the segregated South. In the early stages of my research, I found a quote by John Biggers:

“A new dawn challenges this world and demands the salt of every one of us. There can be no doubt of our sodality, for in each of us we reflect one another’s image, and our composite image mirrors the tragedy and the comedy of the whole human race.”

How stunning, beautiful and true!!! I was hooked! I learned as much as I could about Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Samella Lewis, Viktor Lowenfeld, and Charles White. I learned about life, music, food, politics, and race relations in Austria and the United States before, during, and just after World War II. I learned about Jewish scholars working at Black colleges and about the history of Hampton University specifically. This experience has taught me a lot about my writing process and what I need in order to create successfully.

IRAAA: How was The Hampton Years was conceived and commissioned?

Jacqueline E. Lawton: In May of 2011, Shirley Serotsky, Theater J's Director of Literary and Public Programs, contacted me about submitting a proposal for their first ever Locally Grown: Community Supported Art From Our Own Garden festival.  I submitted The Hampton Years, which was originally conceived in November of 2010 after a conversation with Shirley about Theater J’s interest in exploring the Black and Jewish relationship. The Hampton Years, which explores the relationship between Jewish scholars and Black students in the segregated South during the 1940s, was perfect match for Theater J's mission, and they commissioned it as part of the festival.

IRAAA: After the staged reading at Theater J, audience members questioned why you focused on the emerging artists Samella Lewis and John Biggers instead of the art giants, husband and wife Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett. Explain.

Jacqueline Lawton: The play is set at Hampton University from 1939 to 1946, when Viktor Lowenfeld, John Biggers, and Samella were all there. This was a difficult time for both African Americans and Jewish people, as Jim Crow laws and Anti-Semitism plagued the country. Yet somehow these passionate, brilliant artists rose above all that was standing in their way to create beautiful, poignant and lasting works of art. This amazed and inspired me, so I knew I had found my play! Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett are fascinating people. They appear in the play as mentors and instigators! In truth, they deserve their own play! Perhaps as a companion piece!

IRAAA: Lewis’ character is the moral fiber of how to survive when all is against you. She is the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in art history, founded several museums, is the author of numerous art books and is the creator of the prominent art scholarly magazine at Hampton, the International Review of African American Art. When you write a historical play based upon real and alive individuals with major publicity, do you feel obligated to train the audience?

Jacqueline Lawton: If by train, you mean teach, then yes. There is a certain amount of exposition that the audience needs to have in order to understand the world of the play and the relationships between characters. The synopsis gave a bit of information, but not everyone read it. This became evident in the responses to the blog. Many were surprised to learn that the play was based on real people. In production, there would be program notes from the director or dramaturg that would give a bit of information about the characters and the time period.

IRAAA: Do you take liberties with fictional depiction?Faedra Chatard Carpenter (Dramaturg), Jacqueline E. Lawton (Playwright), Otis Ramsey-Zoe, (Director), Ari Roth (Artistic Director, Theater J) Photo by Batya Feldman.

Jacqueline Lawton: Yes and no. In addition to being a playwright, I am also a dramaturg. A dramaturg is Photo of Samella Sanders (now Lewis) when she was a student at Hampton Institute. Hampton University Museum and Archives.John Biggers, seated, with Mother and Child painting on easel, 1944. Art Instructor Viktor Lowenfeld (second from left) encouraged the students to express their frustration with poverty and other conditions of opression in the South.  (Standing far right are Frank Steward and Ada Ferguson Vann.) Photo: Hampton University Archivessomeone who gathers research for a production. They can also assist in helping a playwright craft and shape a new play. As a playwright, I do extensive and thorough research. At times, the research can be a hindrance to the creative process, but more often than not, it fuels my creativity and serves as my guide.

IRAAA: Since Samella is alive, healthy and accessible, we are curious why you didn’t contact her for your research and development.

Jacqueline Lawton: What an interesting question! It takes me back to a famous quote from one of my favorite plays, Six Degrees of Separation, by John Guare. In it, the character Ouisa Kitteridge is trying to find an imposter who came into the life of her and her husband. She recalls having read somewhere “that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people.” She goes on to say, “I find it extremely comforting that we're so close. I also find it like Chinese water torture, that we're so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection . . . .” When you are an unknown playwright writing about someone of Samella’s magnitude, you’re not always taken seriously. People don’t always return your calls or emails. This wasn’t the case with Samella Lewis per se, but in such instances, it’s easier to research like mad, write from your heart, honor the truth, and hope for the best!

IRAAA: Sometimes, archival research can lead to inaccuracies with misquotes, data compilation, factual errors and such. Do you prefer to create without any directives from the living?

Jacqueline Lawton: That’s true, but diligent research and attention to detail can help avoid the pitfalls of inaccuracy. And while I don’t want anyone telling me what to write or what not to write, I worked quite closely with my director, Otis Ramsey-Zoe, and my dramaturg, Faedra Chatard Carpenter. The smartest thing I’ve done in this process was listen to them and they’re very much living!

IRAAA: Do you collect art? If so, who?

Jacqueline Lawton: With infinite funds, I would love to own pieces by Amadeo Modigliani, Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Diego Rivera and Mark Rothko, to name a few. Of course, I absolutely love the work of the artists featured in this play: Samella Lewis, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, and Charles White.

IRAAA: Did you see any of the major retrospectives on the featured artists?

Jacqueline Lawton:  No, unfortunately, I did not. I hope to see their work in person soon.

IRAAA: Twenty years ago, black women playwrights . . .

Jacqueline Lawton:  . . . were still celebrating the fact that Suzan-Lori Parks had just won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for her play, Topdog/Underdog. She became the first black woman to achieve such an honor when awarded in 2001. For as many black women playwrights who were excited and hopeful, there were just as many who doubted the doors would be open for them.  To put this in perspective, the Pulitzer Prize for drama was first awarded in 1918, and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun was the first play by a black woman to be presented on Broadway in 1959.

IRAAA: Now, black female playwrights . . .

Jacqueline Lawton: . . . are taking Broadway by force! For the first time ever, “The Great White Way” is host to three plays by black women: Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly and Suzan-Lori Parks’ adaptation of Porgy and Bess. What’s more, a second black woman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama: Lynn Nottage received it for Ruined in 2009. Do we have a ways to go in terms of recognition and stage time? Absolutely. But that’s progress!!

IRAAA: Today, do we need the voices of black women playwrights more than ever?

Jacqueline Lawton: We need the voice of black women playwrights as much as we ever did. As long as there are black women living, breathing, dreaming, working, crying, enduring, fighting and dying on this planet, we need black women playwrights to tell their stories.

IRAAA: What’s your goal for the play?

Jacqueline Lawton: The Black and Jewish relationship is deep and complex. We have danced, prayed and wept together. We have marched arm-in-arm demanding equality, justice, and civil rights. We have fought against one another, standing at arm’s length in hatred, mistrust and confusion. I look forward to a time of healing in our respective communities and hope that this play can contribute to that process. What’s more, I hope this play honors the lives and legacy of these great artists. In it, we witness their early struggles and achievement, their flaws and brilliance. If ever produced, I hope the audience walks away inspired by their lives and careers. I’m grateful to Theater J for encouraging me to tell this story and to you for inviting me to share my journey.

IRAAA: Why does Theater J of the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center (DCJCC) have such a commitment to new works, and what does that commitment look like for The Hampton Years?

Jacqueline Lawton: Theater J has a longstanding commitment to new play development. No doubt, this stems from the fact that the artistic director, Ari Roth, is a playwright who cares deeply about nurturing other playwrights! The Locally Grown Festival came out of this passion and dedication. I’m honored and grateful to have been a part of it. Having this level of investment at the early stages of the writing process is invigorating! The entire Theater J staff has been attentive, encouraging and passionate about The Hampton Years. They remain devoted to the script and to me as a playwright.

IRAAA: Tell us a little about your process as a playwright.

Jacqueline Lawton: First, I sit in front of my laptop, stare at the blank page, and ask, “How has anyone ever written a play before?” I ask this, even though I’ve just finished writing a play. From there, I start with the characters. Their names are revealed to me, and I endeavor to learn as much as I can about their hopes, dreams, fears, secrets and desires. I investigate their worlds and everyday lives. I watch films and documentaries. I read books, articles, and plays. I listen to music and look at art. I learn about their politics, social customs and food ways. Then I name the play, which in and of itself is quite a process! From there, I outline the structure of the play and start to write. I don’t always follow the outline, but it helps as a guidepost. While writing, I continue to research. Also, I keep a journal and pen with me, because a piece of dialogue, a monologue, or stage directions will come to me at any given moment.

IRAAA: What part of the new-play process is particularly helpful to you?

Jacqueline Lawton: Notes! In the writing and rewriting stage, notes from my director and dramaturg help me to process what is actually there and how it’s being received. In the rehearsal and reading stage, notes from actors give me a delicious point entry into the characters. In the production stage, notes from designers break open the world of my play in the most beautiful way!

IRAAA: For you, as a playwright, what is the most valuable part of the new-works process: reading, workshop productions, or world premiere? Why?

Jacqueline Lawton: Each has its merits, and I would add rehearsal to this list. Rehearsals are where the magic happens, where discoveries are made. Readings teach me the audience’s response. However, I learn more observing the audience during the reading than during the post-show discussion. Workshop productions teach me how the play lives and breathes on its feet. This is an essential step for me, and I’m thrilled more theaters are offering this step for new plays. The world premiere is about exposure, and if you’ve worked really hard in rehearsals, took notes during the reading and did your rewrites after the workshop production, then it’s also the reward. However, the real test is how many productions a play receives beyond the world premiere.

IRAAA: How much do your plays tend to change from before a reading to the world premiere?

Jacqueline Lawton: Tremendously!!! My plays grow in leaps and bounds from draft to draft, and that’s a good thing! Typically, the structure remains the same, but the characters' journeys are fleshed out and the plot is strengthened.

IRAAA: How do you approach a world premiere?

Jacqueline Lawton: With a glass of champagne in one hand and pen in the other! The world premiere is a time of great celebration, but the work isn’t done! I’m taking notes and revising the script the very next day! I’m always working to strengthen the script.

IRAAA: What is your earliest memory of writing?

Jacqueline Lawton: I wrote short stories about mine and my sister’s stuffed animals and all the adventures they had while we were at school. I wrote these stories for my sister, to entertain her. She still reads all of my plays. I’m proud to say that she loved The Hampton Years!

IRAAA: Do you remember when you first discovered plays, performance and theater?

Jacqueline Lawton: Yes, vividly! My mother is an avid MGM musical buff, and I quickly became hooked! I learned about theatre and show business from Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Bing Crosby, and Danny Kaye. I’d watch them over and over, learn the songs and imitate the dance steps. My younger sister and I would act out little plays with our stuffed animals and homemade puppets. Also, we didn’t dress up for Halloween; instead, part of our Thanksgiving tradition was to make costumes and sing made-up songs and act out little made-up plays.

IRAAA: Is there anyone in particular that you look on as key influence?

Jacqueline Lawton:  There are playwrights who shifted my perspective and open my heart: Kia Corthron, Amparo Garcia Crow, John Guare, Adrienne Kennedy, Terrance McNally, Lynn Nottage, Ruth Margraff, Suzan-Lori Parks, Jose Rivera, Sarah Ruhl, William Shakespeare, Sam Shepard and Tennessee Williams.

IRAAA: What's next for you as a playwright?

Jacqueline Lawton: On August 5, I’ll be speaking about The Hampton Years on the Staging Strife and Solidarity: Black-Jewish Relations in American Drama panel discussion at Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE)'s annual conference. This event will be moderated by Faedra Chatard Carpenter (Assistant Professor, University of Maryland) and fellow panelists: James M. SoRelle (Professor of History, Baylor University), Heather S. Nathans (Professor of Theatre, University of Maryland), Ari Roth (Artistic Director, Theater J), Kwame Kwei-Armah (Artistic Director, Centerstage), and Gavin Witt (Associate Artistic Director, CenterStage). The Hampton Years will also receive a reading at the 11th Annual Kennedy Center's Page-to-Stage Festival over Labor Day weekend.

IRAAA: Why do you think new works are so risky?

Jacqueline Lawton: New plays are considered a toss. They offer no guaranteed outcome of success until presented. But we must remember that at one point in time all of the much beloved, tried and tested classics were once new. Someone took a chance on them and allowed these plays to show us the world in a way that we had never seen before.