In preparation for FIU Theatre's reading of THE HAMPTON YEARS at GableStage as part of the Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow exhibit at the Coral Gables Museum, I connected with actress Madeleine Escarne, who will be portraying artist, author, and historian Samella Lewis, about her career in the theatre and the relevant themes of the play. Click here to learn more about the reading and please enjoy this wonderful interview.
JACQUELINE LAWTON: To begin, why did you decide to get into theater? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
MADELEINE ESCARNE: I knew that I had always wanted to be some sort of performer since the age of nine. As a kid, I was an extreme extrovert and always wanted to put on a show for people in the prettiest, and most frilly dress I could find. As I grew older, I became more and more introverted to the point where I could not conceive of being in front of people, but the love it was still brewing inside. It was not until after I had graduated from college and had been working in a corporate office for a couple of years, where I sat at my desk and pondered the meaning of my life. Nothing made sense anymore if I continued to deny this creative and artistic side of me. Later, I saw an announcement in the paper for an audition at a local community theatre, and I said to myself, “it’s now or never.” The play was To Kill a Mockingbird and I was cast in the part of Helen. When I stepped foot on the stage, I knew it was my home.
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?
ME: Wow, so many of the statements that the characters make are as relevant then as they are now. Samella’s character states “…folks have had guns pulled on them and killed for doing less…” in reference to John’s character having issues with the printer because they did not service ‘negroes’ and I cant help but think of the unrest that has been so prevalent in the news as of late. This play is relevant today, and especially to me being African American, on the importance of empathy from one oppressed culture to another. Elizabeth’s and Samella’s character go back and forth in the comparison of the Jewish culture (and their oppression) to that of African Americans and segregation in the play and Samella’s words (and understanding) ring truer even now.
JL: THE HAMPTON YEARS 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.?
ME: There is so much I could say here. Growing up as an 80’s baby, I’ve seen things propel forward exponentially in the right direction but, in my opinion, has nowadays gone in reverse ever so rapidly. I remember turning on the television and watching shows like “The Famous Jett Jackson” and seeing the lead played by an un-stereotypical African American male and address issues such as bigotry and racism. I grew up watching shows such as “A Different World” and seeing issues tackled such as the L.A. Riots and divestment from South African companies that practiced Apartheid. Movies by Spike Lee and John Singleton challenged my young mind to burst from the small box that American culture was determined to hold me in. Two plus decades later, and most of what I see now is fluff. TV and movies have become so homogenous to the point where productions companies have even claimed that ‘people’ are not interested in the African American plight unless their perspective is told from that of a slave or a maid. Just these past few years (the twenty-first century mind you), I’ve been called a nigger, I’ve been followed in stores, I’ve been asked on multiple occasions do I work at the very same store that I am a patron of. I have been one of a hand-full of people (if not the only) who look like me in any organization (or class) that I’m apart of. The list can go on and on for pages and pages and no matter what anyone tries to tell me, racism in these ‘united’ states of America is alive and well and perpetuated even more so through the arts and especially through the media.
JL: Which character are you playing? What, if anything, do you have in common with this character’s passions, values, intentions or belief system?
ME: I play the character of Samella Sanders Lewis. I have three older brothers and so I’ve had my share of the bias that always happens in the sibling dynamic. I could certainly relate to the scene where Samella finds the letter in Viktor’s office about John having his work displayed at the MOMA and her not even being considered even though her work was just as worthy. I know the experience of having that sinking feeling of possibly being passed over, or not recognized for something because not only am I ‘black’ but I’m a woman as well. Mainly, I can attest to Samella’s passion of making it evident that all she has attained, she has worked extremely hard for and that it was not simply handed to her.
JL: What do you hope audiences walk away thinking about after experiencing this play?
ME: Consideration; a moment of pause to even want to try to walk a mile in someone else’s shoe. I think it is hard to understand where a person is coming from, the deep seeded issues and beliefs that one carries based on factors that are beyond their control, until a person takes a moment of pause for reflection to want to understand what their experience could have possibly been like.
JL: What’s next for you as an actor? Where can we follow your work?
ME: Ah, I’m not quite sure. I am currently working on completing my BFA from Florida International University. I just ended a run with FIU in our production of An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde. I played the character of Lady Marby. We have auditions for the spring semester coming up and so I’m hopeful about that. Other than that (and any other opportunities that may come up in the interim) you can follow me on facebook @actorMEscarne. Thank you very much for this opportunity!
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!