JACQUELINE LAWTON: Why did you decide to get into theater? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
DEBORAH BAER MOZES: My parents took me to the theater and opera at a young age. There were children’s theatre productions in the Village, Leonard Bernstein conducting Children’s concerts. I saw Shakespeare productions in NYC and at the Shakespeare festival in Conn. They had a good friend who as an opera singer/performer at the Amato Opera Company on the Lower East Side.
Theatre, all the arts, were an ever present part of my family’s life or growing up. My grandmother took me to see musicals on Broadway. I can’t say that any one production inspired me. But I was always putting on shows for my parents. In fact, when we would have family friends over I made all the kids do shows – I remember once telling them, "They didn’t get dessert, if we didn’t do a show." They were all new works – I created and directed. So I think I was born to be both a director and dramaturg.
JL: What excited you about directing the reading of THE HAMPTON YEARS? What made you say yes?
DBM: I have many points of connection with your play. My mother was a refugee from Nazi Germany, she came here alone at age 16. My grandparents never got out and perished in the Shoah. So the story of this refugee family connects. Margaret’s letter writing is a familiar story: my mother often told me of writing letters to Germany, of trying to get her parents out and later trying to find out what happened to them.
The other point of connection is the civil arts movement. My parents were civil rights activists. In fact, they were involved in block busting. When I was little, I remember going to civil rights rallies. My dad went on the March on Washington. I wanted to go with him but my mom was concerned that I was too young, especially if it became violent. I remember sitting glued to the T.V., hoping to see my father in the crowd. Dr. Martin Luther King was one of the heroes of our home as was Paul Robeson. Our circle of friends was very multi-ethnic and cultural. Sadly, I’m afraid that my life is more white now than when I grew up.
I also love your ear for dialogue. This is such an important and unknown story. I am thrilled to be sharing it with our Theatre Ariel audience. Also, it’s a wonderful intersection of timing that I discovered your play at a time that we could present this reading in conjunction with the National Museum of American Jewish History’s BEYOND THE SWASTIKA and JIM CROW exhibition.
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. This play 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.?
DBM: That’s a long conversation. On one hand, we have an African American President, amazing. Dr. King’s dream come to true. On the other hand, I think that most of us live side by side culturally, but don’t interact. As I said, my life is much “whiter” than when I grew up, which was with racially, ethnically diverse friends and when I was active in the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
My daughter went to Temple University, considered one of the most diverse universities in the US, Yet, she always commented that it was a diverse student body, but the social circles were at the end of the day separate. The Asian students hung out with the Asian students, the African American students with the African American students etc., etc.
Is this the result of racism and bigotry? I do think that yes, racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism continue to live below the surface of American society. But it's nothing like it used to be and it's not that way not everywhere. After all, we twice elected an African American President and I read somewhere that Obama got 45 percent of the vote in Georgia!
JL: THE HAMPTON YEARS also celebrates and honors such extraordinary artists as John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Samella Lewis, Viktor Lowenfeld and Charles White for their bold and courageous ability to overcome these challenges and create beautiful, powerful and lasting works of art. Why do you feel this play is relevant to today audiences?
DBM: Before I go to the relevance to our audiences, I want to thank you for introducing me the works of these four African America artists. The power of John Biggers work, how he captures the working man, incredibly moving work. It reminds me of some other Kathe Kollwitz’s work, a German printmaker and sculptor, whose work depicted the struggles of the working men and women, of the harshness of the human condition in the 30’s and early 40’s.
As to the relevance to our audience, THE HAMPTON YEARS is like a tapestry (which in fact is the way women create art) weaving many themes and issues – so I think there are many entry points – places of relevance:
These are questions your play raises and whether one is an artist or a parent these questions will arise. All relevant to our audiences.
JL: If there is one thing you want audiences to walk away knowing or thinking about after experiencing THE HAMPTON YEARS, what would that be?
DBM: What is identity? And as the caterpillar says to Alice – and WHO ARE YOU? How to you give that YOU out in the universe. I want them to come out of the theatre and google the work of Bigger, Lewis, White and Catlett.
JL: What’s next for you as a director and your company?
DBM: I am doing a project that is very out of the box for me. I am working with Marcus Stevens on a cabaret – which will have its first draft showcase at our next Salon in April. It’s very exciting for me to venture into this genre and world. This summer, I plan on returning to a very personal project that I started two years ago, at the suggestion of my friend and rabbi, David Ackerman. My mom, who passed away almost three years ago, wrote two novels about her life in Nazi Germany. I did a first draft, transforming her work to the stage, I needed to step back. I hope to have the time this summer to work on this script. Down the road, I would like to do co-productions with other Philly theatres to bring new works of Jewish theatre to their audience.
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!