Jun 4, 2012
I Interview Playwrights Part 463: Jacqueline E. Lawton
photo by Jason Hornick
Jacqueline E. Lawton
Hometown: Tennessee Colony, Texas
Current Town: Washington, D.C.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now, I’m finishing Bend and Sway, Don’t Break, which is about the domestic slave trade and fight for freedom in D.C. in the early 19th Century. I started writing it last Spring, but it got usurped by Love Brothers Serenade and The Hampton Years.
Bend and Sway, Don’t Break follows Dr. Jesse Torrey, a Philadelphian physician and philanthropist, who was on a crusade throughout the East Coast to advocate for the establishment of free libraries and public schools. When he arrived in D.C., he learned about the attempted suicide of a slave woman who was about to be sold South apart from her husband and children. She had jumped from the third story window of Miller’s Tavern, which was a notorious slave depot located on 13th and F Streets NW. She broke both arms and injured her back, but survived. Dr. Torrey visited her and discovered two kidnapped people of color, who were also about to be sold into slavery. Torrey went to Francis Scott Key, brilliant attorney and one-hit wonder, for help.
I’m reading the handwritten transcripts of this case and the newspaper articles that capture the response of congress members, who are being forced to confront the atrocity of slavery; it’s riveting! I’m grateful to have the next two weeks to work on it.
This summer, I’ll be working on rewrites on The Hampton Years, which will receive a world premiere at Theater J next season.
Q: Tell me about The Hampton Years.
A: Absolutely! The Hampton Years is set at Hampton Institute from 1939 to 1946. The play dramatizes key events in the life of art professor Viktor Lowenfeld and his students, John Biggers and Samella Lewis. Lowenfeld turned down a teaching position at Harvard to work at Hampton (a Negro school), which was absolutely unheard of at the time! John Biggers, who started off learning how to be a plumber, went on to become an internationally acclaimed painter, sculptor, and teacher. Samella Lewis, artist and printmaker, was a transfer from the University of Iowa. She had fiery and passionate temper, which led to a contentious, but truly respectful relationship with Lowenfeld. She’s in her 80s now and still works as an artist.
Recently, I met Hazel Biggers, widow of the late John Biggers, at the opening reception of African American Art: From Harlem Renaissance to Civil Rights Era and Beyond at the American Art Museum. She’s so excited about the play! Also, Samella Lewis read the play and had this say about it, “It’s good. Girl, it brought me back. I hadn’t expected that.” How exciting is that?!
Q: Can you talk about the Locally Grown Festival and working with Theater J?
A: Okay, so back 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: New Plays From Our Own Garden (or Community Supported Arts)" festival. The festival premiered Renee Calarco’s The Religion Thing; included readings of new plays by Gwydion Suilebhan, Stephen Spotswood, and myself; and featured workshop presentations of new works by solo performing artists Jon Spelman and Laura Zam.
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. Since The Hampton Years, explores the relationship between Jewish scholars and Black students in the segregated south during the 1940s, it was perfect match for Theater J's mission and they commissioned it as part of the festival.
Working with Theater J has been and continues to be amazing! Their Locally Grown Festival supports the work of D.C. area playwrights in a nurturing environment and allowed us to contribute our voices to an already vibrant theater season. Having this level of investment and commitment at the early stages of the writing process was so invigorating! What’s more, the entire Theater J staff is so attentive, encouraging and passionate about the work we’re presented and their continued investment in us has been thrilling! I’m over the moon with joy and excitement about the upcoming production!
Q: Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.
A: I love this question! When I was in 3rd Grade, we were given an assignment to write a short story about Halloween. At this point, I was already writing adventure stories about my stuffed animals, so this assignment was a piece of cake! What’s more, I adored my 3rd Grade teacher, Mrs. Jordan, and had the biggest little girl crush on her two daughters, who were always very nice to me. (They both had gorgeous curly red hair, which reminded of Anne of Green Gables.) I wrote a haunted house story about all of them and Mrs. Jordan loved it! She loved it so much in fact that she asked me read it aloud in class. Horror upon horrors, I felt betrayed! I begged her not to make me do it. Despite the ME you know now, 3rd Grade Me was painfully shy and terrified to speak in public. Oh, I was so scared. I resisted with every fiber of my being, but ultimately ... I did as instructed. I read the story to my class. Every now and then, I would lift my eyes up from the page, which was gripped so tightly in my shaking and sweating hands, just to see if the class was looking and listening. They were, and they seemed to enjoy it! When I finished, they applauded so loudly! It was a room full of smiles and it felt amazing! Now, you can’t keep me from the stage; all thanks to Mrs. Jordan. That experience literally changed my life.
Q: If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?
A: I want to rid this great work of ours of the incendiary bigotry, racism, sexism and elitism that runs rampant and silences so many beautiful, powerful and essential voices. I want more diversity on our stages not only in gender, ethnicity, and race, but also in content, style, and voice. I want theater producers, administrators, boards, artists, donors, patrons, and audiences to stop with all the nonsense, do better and be smarter! Plain and simple.
Q: How would you describe the DC theater scene?
A: Diverse, thriving, passionate, determined, brave, generous, eager, defiant, accomplished, and outstanding!
Q: Who are or were your theatrical heroes?
A: Interns! They are brave souls venturing forth into the world. Also, these playwrights: Amparo Garcia Crow, John Guare, Adrienne Kennedy, Terrence MacNally, Ruth Margraff, Arthur Miller, Lynn Nottage, Harold Pinter, Jose Rivera, Sarah Ruhl, and Tennessee Williams. These playwrights cracked open my heart and changed my world view. I am not the same for having encountered their writing, vision, passion, and devotion to theater. I am grateful to them.
Q: What kind of theater excites you?
A: Theater that is magic. That provokes and pushes boundaries. That poses difficult questions. That reflects the human condition. That shows us how awful and beautiful we can be to one another ...and that we have a choice in how we behave. That uses powerful and provocative language. That introduces us to interesting and compelling characters. That is intimate, funny, honest, scary, ugly, messy, poetic, and beautiful. Theater, that while ephemeral, remains with you forever.
Q: What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?
A: Be bold, honest, and determined. See as many plays and readings as you can. Make friends with other theater artists. Talk, argue, complain, yell and cry to them about the kind of work you want to be creating, the kind that isn’t being created where you live, and then go create it. Honor and protect your writing time. Don't ever stop writing!
Q: Plugs, please:
A: My lovely website: www.jacquelinelawton.com
August 5, 2012 from 11:30am to 1:00pm: Staging Strife and Solidarity: Black-Jewish Relations in American Drama at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) annual conference with Kwame Kwei-Armah (Artistic Director, Centerstage), Jacqueline E. Lawton (The Hampton Years/Theater J commission), Ari Roth (Artistic Director, Theater J), and Gavin Witt (Associate Artistic Director, CenterStage), moderated by Faedra Chatard Carpenter (Assistant Professor, University of Maryland) and LaRonika Thomas (Doctoral Candidate, University of Maryland).
World Premiere of The Hampton Years at Theater J under the direction of Shirley Serotsky with performances running May 29th to June 30th, 2013.