As my year-long sabbatical draws to a close, I am taking advantage of this most precious gift of time. I’ll be embarking on two new plays this summer. The first play focuses on environmental justice and the impact of climate change on coastal cities. With the support of UNC’s inaugural Arts and Humanities grant, I’ll be working to complete the first draft of this play by mid-August and will have a new play development workshop in September or October. The second play is a feminist fairytale podcast play for children, which will address immigration and the impact of family separations. I received this commission from Girls Tales, a great organization that is dedicated to creating new plays that offer a feminist twist on classic fairytales, fables, and myths. I’ll be sure to keep you posted on both of these projects as they take shape.
However, before I can begin working on those two plays, I’ll be workshopping my latest play, Behold A Negress. I’m so excited to hear this play. As you may recall, this is second of three plays for which I received funding to write with the support of a University Research Council (URC) Small Grant. The title, Behold, A Negress, comes from the former title of the portrait above on the right. I have long admired the boldness and beauty of this painting. I knew that I would write about it one day, but I had no idea what form that writing would take. I just knew that I wanted to write about the woman in the painting. I wanted to write her into history. Because before yesterday, I knew so little about her. I knew only that she was from Grenade and had been brought to Paris by Benoist brother-in-law. But I did not know her name.
Now, before we get to that, here's a little background on the artist and the painting:
Born on December 18th 1768 in Paris, France, Marie-Guillemine Benoist was an aristocrat, abolitionist, and accomplished painter. She studied with master artists Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun and Jacques-Louis David. She exhibited Portrait d'une Négresse in the Salon at the Palace of the Louvre in 1800. The portrait caused quite the stir and was not well-received. One critic, writing for a conservative paper, did not hide his disgust when calling it as a “noirceur” or “black stain.” Over time, however, the portrait became a symbol for women's emancipation and black people's rights. Today, it hangs in the Louvre in a gallery devoted to Jacques-Louis David. The portrait takes center stage among his work and that of his other students.
Yesterday, when I was working on this post, I needed to confirm the title of a recent exhibit, “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today,” which is working to identify and tell the stories of black models in many modern paintings. It was here, months ago, that I learned that the title of the portrait had been changed from Portrait of a Negress to Portrait of a Black Woman. When I wrote the play, I named the character after my grandmother. I needed to call her something--and I suppose I could have called her "Negress," but that wouldn't have done much to humanize her. So, when I looked up the exhibit again, I could not believe my eyes.
Here is an excerpt from, "Musée d’Orsay Retitles Marie-Guillemine Benoist Painting for ‘Black Models’ Show," written by the editors of the art magazine, ArtNews:
“In honor of the exhibition “Black Models: From Géricault to Matisse,” which examines representations of the black figure in modern art, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris has retitled Marie-Guillemine Benoist’s Portrait d’une négresse (1800). It will be called Portrait of Madeleine, in reference to the name of the woman pictured in the work.
Denise Murrell, one of the show’s organizers, said of the painting in a statement, “For more than 200 years there has never been an investigation to discover who she was—something that was recorded at the time.”
She added that art history “has contributed to the construction of these figures as racial types as opposed to the individuals they were.”
Suddenly, after all these years of loving this portrait and knowing so little about the women staring back at me, I now had her name: Madeleine. It was remarkable! Truly remarkable. I was flooded with so many emotions, but I knew I had one thing to do, and that was to change the character's name in the script. Which I did, Immediately!
For dramatic purposes, knowing so little about Madeleine left me room to imagine who she might be; the circumstances of her birth and upbringing; how it is she came to France; who she was to Benoist; and what ultimately became of her. Here is more information about the play and the wonderful theatre artists working with me:
Set in Paris and spanning the heights of the French Revolution through the beginnings of Napoleon's reign, BEHOLD, A NEGRESS imagines an intimate relationship between real-life painter, Marie-Guillemine Benoist, and her muse, Madeleine, a formerly enslaved black woman. Inspired by the execution of eighteenth-century feminist and playwright Olympe de Gouges, Marie and Madeleine maneuver the codes and corridors of women's power in post-revolutionary France in pursuit of their own liberty, equality, and fraternity. However, when Marie's ambition and desire for artistic recognition overshadow Madeleine's sense of justice and personal integrity, the women find themselves at odds just as revolutionary as the political world that surrounds them. BEHOLD, A NEGRESS is a passionate and daring examination of the challenges of intersectional feminism and the role of art during times of great social unrest and political upheaval.
The new play development workshop will take place next week. Under the direction of Shirley Serotsky with dramaturgy by Jules Odendahl-James and stage management by Ruthie Allen, the cast will include Kayla Brown, Kaja Dunn, and Laurel Ullman. We’ll be spending three days together as I hear the script aloud for the first time and work on revisions. There will be a small in-house reading on Friday afternoon. As always, I'll be sure to share photos from our time together and any next steps for the work as it makes its way into the world!
For now, I want to take this opportunity thank the Adam Versenyi, Vivienne Benesch, the Department of Dramatic Art, and PlayMaker's Repertory Company for their generous support of this new play development workshop. I also want to give a special shout-out to Abbey Toot, PRC’s Company Manager, for her tireless support and enthusiasm.
Behold, A Negress Ensemble
JACQUELINE E. LAWTON is a playwright, dramaturg, producer, and advocate for Access, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the American Theatre. Her plays include: Among These Wild Things (2018 Semi-finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference); Anna K; Blackbirds; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; Edges of Time; The Hampton Years; Intelligence, The Inferior Sex; Love Brothers Serenade (2013 semi-finalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference); Mad Breed; Noms de Guerre (Susan Blackburn Prize Nominee (2015, 2017); and Our Man Beverly Snow. Ms. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener Fellow. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including a 2019-2020 Institute for African and African American Research Faculty Fellowship, 2018 UNC Arts and Humanities Grant, 2018 UNC Institute for Arts and Humanities Faculty Fellowship, and 2018-2020 University Research Council Grant. She is a proud member of the Dramatist Guild of America and is the Regional Representative for North Carolina.
SHIRLEY SEROTSKY (Director) is a director, dramaturg, artistic leader, educator and programmer in the Washington, DC area. Selected directing credits include: The How and the Why, Another Way Home, The Call, Yentl, The Argument, The Hampton Years, The History of Invulnerability, The Moscows of Nantucket, Mikveh (Theater J); Rapture, Blister, Burn (Round House Theatre); The Jungle Book (Adventure Theatre); The Break (Signature Theatre); Other Life Forms, Working: The Musical (Keegan Theatre); Blood Wedding (Constellation Theatre); A Man, His Wife, and His Hat and Birds of a Feather (The Hub Theatre); Juno and the Paycock (Washington Shakespeare Company); Reals, Five Flights and Two Rooms (Theater Alliance); Crumble and We Are Not These Hands (Catalyst Theater); References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot (Rorschach Theater, for which she received a 2007 Helen Hayes nomination for outstanding direction); Sovereignty (The Humana Festival of New Plays). Training: BFA, The University of North Carolina School of the Arts; MFA, Catholic University. www.shirleyserotsky.com
JULES ODENDAHL-JAMES (Dramaturg) is an artist/scholar and Associate Member of the Society of Directors and Choreographers who has been making theater in the Triangle for almost twenty years. Directing credits for the 18-19 season: In A Word by Lauren Yee for Bulldog Ensemble Theater & Men On Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus for Justice Theatre Project. As a dramaturg this season she's been supporting new work by playwright Jacqueline Lawton (UNC-Chapel Hill) on her pieces Blackbirds; Edges of Time; and Behold! A Negress. She served as an Associate Artistic Director at Manbites Dog Theatre from 2014 until the theater’s closure in June of 2018; she is a founding member of Bulldog Ensemble Theater (Durham) and an adjunct faculty in Theater Studies Department at Duke University where she'll be directing Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in the fall of 2019. www.julesodendahljames.com
RUTHIE ALLEN (Stage Manager) is an aspiring director and educator currently based in North Carolina. Directing credits include Just Like Now, Me Too Monologues 2018, Me Too Monologues 2019 (Kenan Theatre Company), Bright Star (Company Carolina), for which she won the UNC Oppie Award and UNC Penny award for Best Direction, and assistant directing credits include Constellations (Playmakers Repertory), Godspell, and The Laramie Project (Company Carolina). She’s also done extensive work as a costume designer and has served as an administrative assistant at Playmakers Repertory for four seasons. She is committed to compelling communities with work that is alive, exciting, and relevant and is committed to connecting with fellow artists and advocates through processes that prioritize kindness, respect, and mutual growth. Education: BA from UNC-Chapel Hill. (she/her) www.ruthevelynallen.com
KAJA DUNN (Madeleine) is an Assistant Professor of Theatre and teaches acting at UNC Charlotte as well as being an actor, director, and activist. Her research targets reshaping pedagogy for theatre students of color as well as Decolonization and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion issues in theatre and their application in academic, professional and corporate settings. She has performed in over 40 shows and was an associate artist at both Moxie Theatre and Lamb’s Players in San Diego. She has performed or directed at Tri-Arts (Chicago), Alder Danztheatre (Chicago), Pacific Theatre (Vancouver), Lamb's Players Theatre (San Diego), Moxie Theatre (San Diego), Kaiser Educational Theatre (Los Angeles), Amigos Del Rep (San Diego), San Diego Rep., Cygnet Theatre (San Diego), Ya Tong Theatre (Taipei), Playmakers Rep. (Chapel Hill), and Black Ops (Durham). You can follow her on Twitter where she frequently posts about EDI issues under the handle @KajaDunn.
LAUREL ULLMAN (Marie) is an actor and producer based in Raleigh. Most recently she played Dr. John Watson in Baskerville at Raleigh Little Theatre. She studied Theatre at UNC-Greensboro; the co-founder of Tiny Engine Theatre, Laurel serves on the board of the Women's Theatre Festival. Favorite roles include Ellen/Mrs. Saunders/Betty in Cloud 9 (Tiny Engine), Emma in Contractions (Common Wealth Endeavours), Anna in Closer (She's-A-Nelson), and The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls with Manbites Dog. She studied theatre at UNC-Greensboro and spent many years on Triad stages performing with companies such as Touring Theatre of NC, Paper Lantern, and Twin City Stage.
KAYLA BROWN (Stage Directions) is a Junior at UNC studying Dramatic Art with a minor in Statistics. She has worked with several student companies on campus, and recent performance credits include Mr. Burns (KTC), La Fiesta (LAB!), and Just Like Now (KTC). Kayla is actively involved in multiple aspects of production around campus, including acting, stage management, and set construction. She has recently stage managed Eurydice with LAB! Theatre Company and has helped build every KTC set during the 2018-2019 school year. Outside of UNC, she has participated in a few community productions, including Urinetown with Davidson Community Players. She also plans to further expand her experience in production by exploring lighting design and set design. Kayla has had the privilege of working with Jacqueline Lawton before on a previous workshop and is incredibly excited to see what discussions Behold, a Negress will bring forward.
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!