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Theater Of The Everyday And Marginalized With Jacqueline Lawton


September 15, 2020 | Sophia Ramos

Assistant Professor of Dramatic Art Jacqueline Lawton joins us again to talk about the projects she is working on. How are her plays living on despite the pandemic? Listen to find out!

 

 

Transcript

 

Philip Hollingsworth 

Welcome to the Institute, a podcast on the lives and work of Fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m Philip Hollingsworth. In this episode, I speak with Assistant Professor of Dramatic Art Jacqueline Lawton. In our conversation, Professor Lawton discusses her current theatrical productions, overcoming challenges of producing theatre during the pandemic and a follow up on our first podcast conversation in Episode 68.

Jacqueline, thanks so much for joining me today to talk a little bit about your work.

 

Jacqueline Lawton 

Thank you for having me, Philip.

 

PH: 

So if you could, how would you describe your work and what you do at UNC in one or two sentences?

 

JL:   

Oh, wow, that’s hard Phillip. Okay, well, I’m an Assistant Professor in the Department Dramatic Art and a dramaturg with Playmakers Repertory Company.

 

PH: 

[laughs] I won’t count that as your sentence.

 

JL:   

That’s one sentence [laughs].

Well, so I also do creative research. And I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with the Center for the Study of the American South on two projects, one that’s looking at environmental justice in communities that are impacted by the climate change. And we’re looking at Robeson County and the Black and Indigenous community there. And their, basically their resilience to all the hurricanes, the flooding and how they can continue to grow as a community.

And the other project is — it’s very exciting — the other is also very exciting. But this is around… Malinda had this — Malinda Lowery, who’s the director — and she had this exciting idea around artists responding to what was happening with the Confederate statues. So it’s imagining UNC’s future through art. And so we’re working with a total of six different, you know, ensembles — individuals and ensembles — as they’re imagining, like what is this moment? And how can art intervene in this moment, and what kind of public art can be created so that those who show up on our campus can have conversation with the past, present, and future. So I’ve been the dramaturg with those projects, helping the artists to think deeply about the work they’re doing and targeting the interactions the audience will have. And then we’re about to create our website. So that since it is COVID-19, and we can’t do the performances in the public way that we’re going to do them, we’re going to try to share them with the public online. So that’s our next iteration. So, I know that’s a lot more than two sentences. But that’s, that’s some of the creative research that I do that’s separate from my playwriting practice.

 

PH: 

That’s great. And I remember we spoke before in a previous podcast about a player working with on Marvel Cooke.

 

JL:   

That’s right.

 

PH: 

Can you talk a little bit about that as like a follow up from the initial conversation we had?

 

JL:

I would love to, yeah. So that was when I had the opportunity to be a Fellow with the Institute for the Humanities and I actually learned that her name is pronounced Marvel [MAR-vel] Cook.

 

PH:

Oh.

 

JL:

So Marvel, so that — no, I learned too which is lovely — well, after I wrote it and I had the reading — which was really wonderful, because the development of the play happened in process with the the other scholars that were part of my fellowship here — so we had a reading and they got to see the play, so they can see where their notes and feedback had been incorporated. And then Playmakers Repertory decided they wanted to produce it, which was really exciting. So they were supposed to produce it this past spring, but then COVID-19 hit. And then our plans were to film it. And then COVID-19 said, “Nope, we’re not going away.” So now, the hope is that we can film it and we can produce it in the spring. And if not producing, we will film it in the spring.

So the beautiful thing about that play. So, it is, it’s the life and legacy of Marvel Cooke and the extraordinary work she did as an investigative journalist, as a union activist, and just as a human being. And it’s allowed me to speak very much to this particular moment, like how do we show up to tell the stories of what are happening to our people and in our communities right now; the power of investigative journalists; and the power of coalition building, community organizing, as we work to address the issues that are very specific to our communities, but speak out loud. Like we see what the Black Lives Matter Movement is doing. And how it’s tapped into literally every nation and how it shows up. So that has been unexpected, you know that the play holds the level of relevancy that it does. So it’s still going and a couple of other theaters are reading it right now too, because the idea of a solo performance piece is easier to produce when trying to keep everyone safe, you know, for the virus.

 

PH: 

Oh. Right. Well, that’s great. That’s exciting. It’s good to hear that despite the challenges and the restrictions — especially in something as like performance art — that this can still, this play will still be able to exist and live on and be put out there in some way.

 

JL:   

Absolutely.

 

PH: 

That’s great. Despite the projects you’ve already talked about, I know, you seem to be pretty prolific in the things you work on just from knowing you for the past like year or two. Is there another play or anything that you’re working on now that you would like to talk about, or any research or anything going on?

 

JL:

Well, I’d love to share for this particular audience about my play 19. So a local theatre company, called the Women’s Theatre Festival, commissioned me to write a play around the 19th amendment because the North Carolina League of Women Voters out of Wake County approached them about wanting to tell the story about what happened, you know, to the 19th Amendment in North Carolina. Specifically, North Carolina did not pass it. And not only that, but there were white women at the time who were working actively against Black woman voting. And they wanted to tell that story because that’s not a story that gets talked about. But they also, the theater — the theme of this season is supposed to be family — so the theater wanted an interracial family at the center. And I said, “Hello, anti-miscegenation laws.” So, that forced me to really like push the imagination. And, and imagine, you know, all of history is not written. And so what are the unwritten stories that we may not know, but are talking about just in our family. So I could imagine this interracial couple and the center is for women, so to Black woman to white women, and they’re all advocating for the right to vote. But there’s a fear about if Black women get the right to vote, then Black men will hold positions of power. And there’s a real pushback against that. So that’s, that’s the play. And for as as dark as the themes and as serious as things are, there’s a lot of humor. It’s very funny, which is, which was intentional. Because we’ve got to come together and laugh through this work.

 

PH: 

Right.

 

JL:   

And then, so it’s an hour long play. And we just had, we just shared a excerpt of it at the Women’s Theatre Festival, on July 11. And the idea was when we present this play, whether we present it as a reading online, or if it’s safe to do so in person, the second hour will be conversations around voting rights, and getting voting advocates and voting activists in conversation with the audience about what is actually happening on the ground right now. And what can everyday people do to ensure that our rights are upheld, maintained and honored. And then making sure that people are registered to vote. So I’m really excited that this piece of theater is written to a specific issue to spark conversation, dialogue and action. And we’ll be able to do it, you know, like I said, online or in person. And of course, it’s an election year. So it’s a really, really important topic.

 

PH: 

Yeah, it’s amazing how both these two plays that you just referenced, like this particular one and the Marvel, the Marvel Cooke story, despite being based in history, even a hundred years ago, they’re incredibly prescient, and for better, for worse, but that’s the way it is. Um, I think you kind of answered the next question I had, because I was thinking of we’re talking about people’s research and the work you do, and in this case you do kind of a hybrid of research and a creative element to transmit or to share that research. But I was thinking about how you envision or how you hope that your work and your projects, in this case your plays, shape or change like popular culture or, you know, policies or kind of have a broader reach beyond, I’d say, the stage.

 

JL:   

Right, right, right. The metaphorical stage.

 

Yeah, I think that because, I mean, the formation of my career was in DC. So this very political city with local and national. But then prior to that, when I went to UT Austin — so I was studying playwright between 2000 – 2003. So when the, you know, the nation went to war in Iraq, and it became — and I’m the daughter of veterans — so there’s a real sense of military that I hold. And I just remember in 2003, when we went into war, like something just, something just changed very dramatically for me around how do we hold our political officials and people in positions of power to account for their actions and inactions? Like it was very clear to me that there’s a danger to what isn’t done as much as there is a danger to what is done, when marginalized communities are negatively impacted.

And so, it just became very clear to me that in my writing, that would have to be at the center of my work. So not just telling the stories of the Black community and other marginalized communities, like placing us at the center and you know decentering whiteness — disrupting this narrative that only whiteness is universal — but that there needs to be a sense of okay, if a wrong is done, it must be named in whether those held to account action is followed. At least we found everyday individuals who knew how to show up in the world, in support of their communities. And that became really important so well, you know, it’ll be a comedy, it could be a drama, it could be historical fiction, it could be a farce, like it doesn’t matter what the genre of the play is. At the center is going to be a community of people who were, you know, either waking up to their circumstances or having long thought in their circumstances and finding a turn, or something. But there’s something very clear and specific. And what I hope, is that people are learning something new, or learning something in a different way, or meeting people in a different way that they have their perspective shifted. Whether that means they’re gonna, you know, march in the streets or vote differently. I don’t know, like, I can’t necessarily change people’s minds. But I can tap into empathy. So I can, I can open their hearts. And if you can open someone’s heart, then you can then potentially change someone’s mind. So that’s really, that’s really my hope, that the creative research can push through to the other side of curiosity, empathy, and I hope activism. But I can’t get that last one at least maybe curiosity and empathy.

 

PH: 

Great. Well, thank you very much. I have one more question, if that’s all right. What’s a book that inspired your research or inspired your work that, you know, you were just describing?

 

JL:  

So it wasn’t a book and it actually may surprise people — I’m looking on my shelf — because it’s a play. It’s actually Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. And I saw a production of it in Austin at St. Edwards University, and that play just cracked open — okay, I mean there are probably three plays that did this — but that play in particular cracked open for me, the consequences of one individual’s actions. Because in that play, we learned that a father worked at like a weapons factory. And he knew that equipment that he had made was, was faulty, but pushed it through anyway.

 

PH: 

Yeah.

 

JL:   

Because of demands and money and… Oh, my gosh. And then of course, we understand the ramifications of that with faulty equipment. That play just cracked open for me about consequences, individual actions, community response. And I just remember, I remember sitting there and just in tears watching that. Yeah, that’s one play that shifted how I want to ensure because it’s definitely, I’m very interested in everyday individuals –which is what Arthur Miller was also interested in — you know, the common man and the common man, the role, responsibilities and engagement of that individual within the in their community. So I can definitely name that as a very powerful play.

 

PH: 

Yeah, that’s great. Thank you very much.

 

JL:   

Awesome

 

PH: 

And Jacqueline, thank you for talking with me today. It was a pleasure.

 

JL:   

Thank you for having me. It was great.

 

[music]

 

PH: 

Check back at iah.unc.edu for the latest news on our Fellows and upcoming events at Hyde Hall. You can find all our episodes of the podcasts on our website as well as iTunes, SoundCloud and Spotify. Please “like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at iah_unc.


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