You should know that this was their second rehearsal. They met on Thursday evening, only I wasn’t able to join them. However, I did send along a dramaturgy packet and video links to songs that appeared in the play, which I’m told was helpful in their preparation.
As we sat around Deborah’s dining room table, she guided us through an intensive, thoughtful and incredibly productive 4 1/2 hour rehearsal. In addition to their passion, energy, and talent, what I needed most from our time together was their inquiry, insight and immediate response. Working with a cast and director who was new to this play was really quite useful. It really allowed me to hear the script anew. No question was to too small, no observation was slight.
This current draft came as a result of the new play development workshop and Tea at Two reading in October at Theatre J, and the subsequent script meeting in December with director Shirley Serotsky, dramaturg Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zoe and artistic director Ari Roth. I did rewrites in January that focused on the following:
- A new scene with Margaret to give her more of a specific and focused presence throughout the play. Margaret was my point of entry into THE HAMPTON YEARS. It was through her that I found the voice, heart and rhythm of the play. I still find her story of a being an intelligent, hardworking and passionate woman/mother/refugee who is geographically isolated by the racial discrimination of the South and trapped by socio-politics of the 1940s to be quite compelling. However, as the play evolved, it became clear that Viktor, John and Samella’s stories drove the play. But, I’m still working to find ways for her story to come through because her struggle, the woman’s struggle does inform the world of the play.
- This scene and other moments throughout to address Viktor's continued growth, self-discovery and overall lack of racial awareness (Bless him!).
- After focusing mostly on teaching and generating material for what would be his monumental work, Creative and Mental Growth, Viktor suddenly produces, The Negro's Burden, a provocative and powerful painting that is put on display at Hampton Institute and is now a part of the Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow exhibit. I’m interested in how his experience at Hampton working with African American artists and living in an African American community inspires him to create this masterfully crafted and racially motivated painting piece.
- Additional moments for John and Samella to interact with each other. There seems to be a desire to see them romantically linked to one another, but John was much enamored with Hazel Hales, an accounting major at Hampton, who he later married. So, sorry folks (and you know I love romance), but that’s not going to happen. Fun note: when I met Hazel Biggers this past April, she shared with me that she and Samella Lewis (then Samella Sanders), were college roommates.
- A scene that shows the much anticipated opening of the African Art Exhibit at the Hampton Museum has been giving me trouble. With the way it had been written, it felt like a homecoming and prompted the feeling of a false ending. So I made significant structural changes that shifted the tone.
- 6. I’m also tracking moments of John’s struggle with depression, which is prompted by a number of issues, but mostly due to the racial prejudice he experience in the military and a scathing anonymous review of his work, which was featured as part of the Young Negro Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1945, he was transferred from Hampton Institute’s Naval Program to the naval base at Norfolk. However, instead of returning from leave, he chose to be admitted to the psychiatric ward of the naval hospital in Philadelphia, where he was observed for a month. Upon his release, he was honorably discharged from the Navy and returned to Hampton. Mental health is really misunderstood, so I’m walking a fine line in terms of what folks expect depression to look like and what it is that John experienced.
Hearing this new material for the first time was really exciting, informative and inspiring. I was able to see where I need to dig deeper and where I could pull back. What helped is that Deborah and the cast created a space where we were all in service of the script. There were no egos in the room. It was really beautiful. When we finished rehearsal, I felt really good about the work we were presenting and was excited to hear it in front of the audience.
Of course, I’ll share more on how those two readings and the post show discussion went in my next two posts. For now, please enjoy these pictures from my time with director Deborah Baer Mozes and my cast Taysha Canales, Akeem Davis, Khris Davis, Stephen Hatzai, Robert Hargraves, Ian Lithgow, Ashley B. Spearman, and Miriam White.