In Jacqueline Lawton’s new play, “The Hampton Years,” the African American playwright explores the historic intersection of art, segregation and immigration at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, VA, during World War II.
The Institute, a vocational school for African Americans, housed an art department founded by Jewish immigrant painter Viktor Lowenfeld, who influenced the development of artists John Biggers, Samella Lewis and others.
The Examiner invited Lawton to discuss her play before its world premiere at Theater J in Washington, DC, as part of that theater’s Locally Grown: Community Art Festival.
Jenét Dechary: What inspired you to write “The Hampton Years”?
Jacqueline Lawton: When I learned about Austrian Jewish art professor Viktor Lowenfeld and his work with African American artists John Biggers and Samella Lewis, I felt their story was important to both the Black and Jewish communities, and that it had to be told.
JD: You and director Shirley Serotsky have collaborated often. What does she bring to your work?
JL: Shirley is a smart and capable director with a rich and textured poetic vision. She’s terrific with new play development. I absolutely live for her notes and trust her implicitly.
JD: Does your work as a teacher and a dramaturge influence your playwrighting?
JL: As a teacher and dramaturge, I’m either studying the masters or being exposed to new writing, new ways of seeing the world.
JD: What have you learned about your play from watching it in rehearsal?
JL: Be ever mindful of overdevelopment. You want to shape and hone a script, but not flatten or dull it out. Also, working with actors and designers teaches me about how the play breathes.
JD: What are the challenges and opportunities of being an African American woman playwright?
JL: Race and gender parity has not been reached in the American theatre. I’m honored to be working with Theater J and Arena Stage, two D.C. theatres who make concerted efforts to address this inequality.
JD: What do you believe is the role of theater in the community?
JL: Theatre is a life force. It entertains, educates, heals, holds accountable and brings people together. It is essential to the health, growth, economy, and vitality of a community.
JD: What else would you like readers to know about you or your work?
JL: I’m working on a new play, “Noms to Guerre, as part of Arena Stage’s Playwrights Arena. It’s a coming-of-age socio-political drama that follows the evolution of a friendship between two women.
Jacqueline Lawton is a playwright alumna of the National New Play Network, a 2013 semi-finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference, and a member of Arena Stage’s Playwright’s Arena.
For performance and ticket information on “The Hampton Years, go to http://washingtondcjcc.org/center-for-arts/theater-j/on-stage/12-13-season/hampton-years/