ERIC HARRELL: I wish I had a more “artsy” story to tell here, but I got into theatre for a girl. I auditioned for Grease in high school because a girl I had a crush on was in the show. It worked. I got a date and launched a rewarding career in the theatre. All in all, a good bet.
JL: Set in Hampton, Virginia in the 1940s, 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. Why do you feel this play is relevant to today’s audiences?
EH: The characters of this play all share a desire to advance the cause of African American artists. Where they differ is in their approach. The activist artist seeks to confront the systems of oppression; the university administrator works for change within the established systems; and the educator negotiates between the two. Ultimately, it takes all three approaches to create change. Perhaps there’s a lesson in there for us today. Solving complex problems requires a unified goal but multi-faceted strategies.
JL: THE HAMPTON YEAR also investigates the various ways in which racism and bigotry negatively impact the arts, academia and military. Where do you feel we are in terms of race relations in the U.S.?
EH: The onion has so many layers. Peeling away the top ones reveals the buried ones. At times, it feels like we’re working on the deeper layers of the problem; at other times, it feels like we’ve been stuck on the same layer for lifetimes. One positive evolution is that the national conversation has been enhanced by diverse perspectives. There are some passionate, intelligent voices speaking today who are not only challenging the tentacles of racism but also proposing solutions and helping us establish a new vocabulary to confront the issues we face. I do believe the conversation is maturing.
JL: Which character are you playing? What, if anything, do you have in common with this character’s passions, values, intentions or belief system?
EH: I play Dr. Malcolm MacLean, president of Hampton Institute. I’ve spent the past fifteen years in higher education as a theatre professor. I know first-hand the challenge of translating the language of artistry into “academic speak,” and more specifically, “administrator speak.” Over time, I have become increasingly sympathetic to the work of university administrators who must balance educational aims with the practicalities of operating a solvent business. It’s definitely a unique experience for me to play the university administrator since I am normally on the other side of the table, but I understand the perspective…well.
JL: What do you hope audiences walk away thinking about after experiencing this play?
EH: We’ve had so many wonderful, invigorating conversations in rehearsal. There are many challenging ideas to chew on in this story; it’s dense. I wish I could be a fly on the wall to hear what “sticks” in the minds of our audiences. Ultimately, I hope they will walk away thinking about the ways that we as human beings deposit kindness, respect and empathy in the lives of others, and of course, how we can do that better.
JL: What’s next for you as an actor? Where can we follow your work?
EH: I serve as the Producing Artistic Director of Tidewater Stage, a professional summer company here in Hampton Roads. We are moving into our production season so I’m taking off my actor hat for the next several months to produce our summer shows.