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.
Edges of Time by Jacqueline E. Lawton to Receive World Premiere Production at PlayMakers Repertory Company
PlayMakers Repertory Company proudly announces its 2019/20 Season: Legacy | NOW. The season brings to our Mainstage one of the Bard’s best tales of political intrigue, a sweeping, Tony Award-winning musical, a seminal American novel in a theatrical re-imagining, a comedy about why fences make for terrible neighbors, a fresh take on the age-old morality play, and a world premiere comedy about a farm-to-table food fight. Our PRC2 Kenan Stage series, curated to spark conversation, brings us the voices of two North Carolina writers as they explore two vastly different women of substantial legacy and a third story that examines the path to forgiveness forged in a community after an unthinkable tragedy.
As PlayMakers celebrates 100 years of playmaking at UNC-Chapel Hill, the upcoming 2019/20 Legacy | NOW season presents a slate of new work combined with new angles on older work that will challenge us to see beyond what we’ve thought of as history’s edges and to explore the diverse ways in which we tell our history, so as to open our hearts and minds to new perspectives.
“I couldn’t be more excited about the line-up for our Legacy | NOW season as an opportunity to celebrate, interrogate and renew the diverse and intersecting legacies that make us who we are,” said Producing Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch. “Some of the brightest and most thought provoking theatre-makers of today, like Karen Zacarías, Nambi E. Kelley, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Jacqueline E. Lawton, and Heidi Armbruster, will engage and collide with some foundational stories and storytellers in a season long conversation that recommits PlayMakers to the legacy of social justice and humanitarianism begun 100 years ago, and also to the tradition of producing world-class entertainment made right here in North Carolina with our exceptional resident company—one of the last resident theatre companies still operating in the country. With two world premieres by astonishing women writers sitting alongside PlayMakers’ first production of ‘Julius Caesar’ in its history, 2019/20 is going to be full to the brim with great theatre.”
Subscription packages are available for purchase now, and renewing subscribers can secure their current seats for the new season through May 1. Single tickets go on sale June 11. Call (919) 962-7529 or visit www.playmakersrep.org for information.
2019/20 MAINSTAGE PRODUCTIONS
“Native Son” by Nambi E. Kelley, Sept. 11–29, 2019
The season opens with a classic of American literature, adapted by Nambi E. Kelly into a theatrical and psychological kaleidoscope for a new generation. The first adaptation of Richard Wright’s “Native Son” was written at UNC-Chapel HIll, a collaboration between Wright and our own Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Green. In Kelley’s searing new adaptation, Bigger Thomas still struggles to find his place in a world whose prejudice has shut him out. Is Bigger’s slide into violence an inevitable outcome of the racism and poverty that surrounds him?
“Dairyland” by Heidi Armbruster, Oct. 16–Nov. 3, 2019
A world premiere comedy that invites audiences to experience an epic farm-to-table food fight. Allie, a food writer in New York City, is raw from failed office romance, journalistic rivalry, and baby shower crafts. When she finds herself on the wrong side of the food scene, will her father’s dairy farm and Patches, the cow, show her the way home? If the success of premieres like “The Cake,” “Temples of Lung and Air,” “Bewilderness,” and “Leaving Eden” are any indication, PlayMakers is becoming an essential home for the development of great new work for the American stage—you won’t want to miss this.
“Ragtime” book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynne Ahrens, Nov. 20–Dec. 15, 2019
Based on the novel of the same name by E.L. Doctrow, the Tony Award-winning musical, about the American experience and the volatile “melting pot” of turn of the 20th century New York weaves a tale that is as relevant today, as ever. Prepare to be swept away by its sweeping melodies, as three distinctly American stories—of a determined Jewish immigrant and his motherless daughter, a daring Harlem musician, and a well-off white family from New Rochelle—paint a powerful picture of the American Dream that will awaken the heart and captivate the soul. The Los Angeles Times calls Ragtime “some of the most breathtaking musical theatre writing of the last 25 years.” This production will feature the long-anticipated PlayMakers debut of Lauren Kennedy as Mother.
“Everybody” by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, Jan. 22–Feb. 9, 2020
This existential comedy updates the medieval morality play “Everyman” to take us on a life-affirming journey of love. Hounded by Death, the character of Everybody desperately searches everything and everyone in life with the hope of finding something to take to the grave. Five brave actors will be assigned their roles by lottery each night—that’s 120 possible combinations—as they fight to cheat Death.
“Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare, Mar. 4–22, 2020
The Bard’s classic play of politics and power hits the stage at PlayMakers for the first time ever. When Julius Caesar’s heroic magnetism tips the scale and threatens to undo four centuries of republican rule in Rome, a small band of patriots determine to put things right. But is their “right” any better?
“Native Gardens” by Karen Zacarías, Apr. 8–26, 2020
This comedy reminds us that good fences don’t always make great neighbors. An attorney on the rise and his very pregnant wife couldn’t feel more welcomed by their new neighbors. But soon, a friendly disagreement about the lay of the land quickly spirals into a war of taste, class, and entitlement.
2019/20 PRC2 KENAN STAGE PRODUCTIONS
Every PRC2 performance is followed by a “second act” of discussion.
“No Fear & Blues Long Gone: Nina Simone” by Howard L. Craft, Aug. 22–25, 2020
Our PRC2 series opens with Howard Craft’s tale of storytelling and song that celebrates the music, loves and losses of Nina Simone, legendary North Carolina singer.
“The Amish Project” by Jessica Dickey, Jan. 8–12, 2020
This timely drama is a fictionalized exploration of an all-too real scenario today: a schoolhouse shooting. When an Amish community is shaken by violence, the community finds a path of forgiveness and compassion in its wake.
“Edges of Time” by Jacqueline E. Lawton, Apr. 29–May 3, 2020
PlayMakers’ company member Jacqueline Lawton brings us her world premiere dramedy about the life and times of Marvel Cooke, pioneering journalist and activist, who was the first African-American woman writer to work for a mainstream newspaper. Company favorite Kathryn Hunter-Williams takes on the title role.
All performances will be presented in the Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art in Chapel Hill. Mainstage productions will be in the Paul Green Theatre; PRC2 shows will be in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre.
For information about PlayMakers’ 2019/20 season Legacy | NOW, visit www.playmakersrep.org or call (919) 962-7529.
PlayMakers Repertory Company is North Carolina’s premier professional theatre company. For more than 40 years, we have produced relevant and courageous work that tells stories from and for a multiplicity of perspectives and creates transformational impact in our immediate and extended communities. We are proud to be part of a 100-year tradition of playmaking at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. PlayMakers has been named one of the “best regional theatres in America.”
PlayMakers contact: For more information, contact Diana Pineda, 919.962.7114 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
During the second week in February, I was in workshop for my play, Among These Wild Things at InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia. The play had been awarded their inaugural New Play Development Award. This is the first national award that I have ever received for my work, which was thrilling. It was also deeply affirming because this play represents a return to my voice as a writer. It was a rigorous week of work. I continue to learn so much about these amazing characters and the powerful story being told. I'm struck by the responses to the play and by the play's clear message about what it wants to be. In the next draft, I will be shifting time significantly, which is exciting. I'm on a bit of hold as I look for funding opportunities or hear from a theatre that is interested in investing in further development. In the meantime, I've started to work on another play, which I'll tell you most about soon and I've gathered photos from my time with the lovely folks at InerAct and my cast in the room. This workshop was directed Seth Rozin with dramaturgy by Erin Washburn and featured Jay Charan, Ciera Gardner, Melanye Finister, Carlène Pochette, and Rupal Pujara. Please enjoy!
At long last, I'm finally able to share the photos from the stage reading/workshop production of The Inferior Sex at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. With this residency, I had the opportunity to work on any play. What a gift! To be told by the chair of the department: We just want to do and support whatever helps you, your craft, and your process. I have a lot of plays in the pipeline, as it were, and I'm glad that I chose The Inferior Sex.
I began writing this play in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. As cities across the world prepared for the second Women’s March, I kept thinking about the Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. While it passed in 1972, it did not reach the 38 state threshold required for ratification. Recently, however, Nevada approved the amendment last year and Illinois approved it this past May. All hope is pointing to Virginia right now. If they approve it, then Equal Rights Amendment will become the law of the land. It’s amazing to think that the global focus on anti-sexual assault and women’s empowerment could lead to immediate, lasting, and comprehensive social and political change. Additionally, over the course of three workshops, actors--whether they were women or queer identifying, told me that they were so happy to be able to play smart, ambitious, passionate, and driven women, and that it was their first time doing so. It's an extraordinary statement, but not surprising given the history of the American Theatre.
My time at UNC Wilmington allowed me to dive deeper into the characters' emotional landscapes, clarify key plot points, and learn more about the world of the play. I remain deeply appreciative for this opportunity for and for the enthusiasm, humor, and talent of my brilliant cast and stage manager. I'm excited to see where this play goes next! Of course, I'll be sure to keep you posted!
Under the direction of Shirley Serotsky, the cast of The Inferior Sex included Alana Ashurst, Lizzie Bennett, Julie Bishop, Madeline Leah Mary Boltinghouse, Darien Bradley, Dajah Glenn, Margaret Naughton, Abigail Norris, Breonté Scarboro, and Samantha Stemmer. Our fearless stage manager is Heidi Casinger. It was such fun, productive, and inspiring experience. Please enjoy these photos of our time together!
Fun with Recipes
The Staged Reading!
Post Show Discussion
UNC Wilmington's Department of Theatre Presents A Stage Reading/Workshop Production of The Inferior Sex
I'm writing to you from Denver, where I'm dramaturging the world premiere production of Donnetta Lavinia Grays beautiful play, Last Night and the Night Before at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. It's my first time in Denver and I'm beyond excited to be working on this new play with such a phenomenal group of theatre artists. It's also nice to be away for a bit. Of course, I'm still reeling from the joy and success of the new play workshop of Edges of Time. It was such a blessing to gather in a room full of women to tell the story of Marvel Cooke's extraordinary life and career.
I'll be working on revisions over the weekend. With this play, I'm thinking about what it means to leave a career that you love--a career you're good at, because economic and political forces push you out, and what is lost by your absence. I'm thinking about how a movement that focused on justice and workers' rights so terrified the powers-that-be that it was weaponized, and where we are now because impoverished people remain disenfranchised and do not control the narrative. I'm thinking about what happens to us as individuals when we begin to understand the larger systems at play that work to erase our humanity. I'm also thinking about how relevant this story is today given our socio-political and racial climate. This play has me so alive right now. To learn more about the play, the process, and to hear from my collaborators, please read this excellent interview, The Marvelous Life of Marvel Cooke, written by UNC College of Arts and Sciences Kim Weaver Spurr.
When I return from Denver, I'll be working to complete another rather exciting play, and I look forward to telling you more about it soon. In the meantime, please enjoy these photos from the rehearsal ad reading with my amazing, talented, generous, and brilliant ensemble: Kaja Dunn (Director), Ash Heffernan (Stage Directions), Kathryn Hunter-Williams (Marvel Cooke), and Jules Odendahl-James (Dramaturg). Please enjoy!
Edges of Time Workshop
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!