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Culturally specific theater offers a different experience to different audience members. It can make viewers reconsider their assumptions about others, and perhaps even their own identity. The same can be true even for the playwrights who make culturally specific work.
It’s a process familiar to the creators of Theater J’s current Locally Grown offering, The Hampton Years. Written by D.C.-based playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton, the historical drama opened earlier this week at the company’s home on 16th Street NW. Set at the Hampton Institute in Virginia during World War II, the play examines the years that African-American artists John Biggers and Samella Lewis spent studying with painter Viktor Lowenfeld, an Austrian-Jewish refugee.
The play was a Lawton/Theater J collaboration that came as the product of a conversation Lawton had with the show’s director Shirley Serotsky. The fourth draft of The Hampton Years was presented as a reading during last years Locally Grown Festival.
Lawton’s longtime passion for writing about artists led her to discover the relationship between Lowenfeld, Lewis, and Biggers. Lawton, who calls herself “a race-conscious feminist playwright,” revealed that most African-Americans she spoke to about her play had never heard of Biggers and Lewis. She hadn’t known about them for very long, either.
“I had never heard of them prior to doing this research,” Lawton says, “and it became very clear in my mind that I was writing this play for the black community. And I was specifically writing this play to teach the black community about these artists.” But she also wanted to “herald and uplift the black and Jewish relationship at a time when it worked and when it was moving forward in a very positive way.”
Yet writing a nuanced portrait of Viktor Lowenfeld posed a particular challenge for Lawton, because “he starts off with all these crazy ideas about race,” she says. “I had to really muscle around with who he was.” Understanding the historical context in which he lived and worked, and the fact that he was new to the United States, was key for her. “To walk off and say that Viktor is a racist would be incorrect,” she says. He was “trying to make sense of how people perceive and then put out information, and one visual way to do that is by race in this time period.”
Serotsky agrees about the importance of contextualizing the play’s characters. The Hampton Years “deals with a very specific story, rooted in a very specific period of time, which makes it interesting,” she says. “I think that’s a very key thing to good art, avoid the general.” When directing any work, not just The Hampton Years, Serotsky tries to do just that. Her aim is to create an environment that eliminates the social awkwardness that can accompany conversations on race and culture. “I try to be really careful in a rehearsal room, when dealing with Jewish themes with non-Jewish actors,” she says. “There is no stupid question.” She can tell when actors are clearly embarrassed to ask about something in the script they don’t understand. “Because you kind of feel like you shouldn’t have to ask,” Serotsky says. “But of course you have to ask.”
Both Lawton and Serotsky believe that working towards specific interpretive choices can help mine a play for universal themes about the human condition. Both approach their work with the idea that no single group of people owns a particular cultural experience or the narrative about a set of historical events. Serotsky says she allows her cultural heritage to “inform but not limit” her artistic choices. Lawton, meanwhile, acknowledges that writing culture into plays does involve a great deal of research, cultural sensitivity, and racial awareness, but she doesn’t think a playwright needs specific credentials to write about cultures other than their own. “I don’t think that anyone’s not allowed to tell a story.”
The Hampton Years runs to June 30 at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW.