It is a wondrous gift to work with artists who you not only admire, respect and esteem but who you also love and trust. Throughout the new play development and rehearsal process of THE HAMPTON YEARS, I had the rare pleasure of working with two such extraordinary artists: director Shirley Serotsky and dramaturg Otis Ramsey-Zoe. What's lovely and inspiring about a situation like this is that the success is sweeter, the trenches aren't nearly so scary and when things get rough, you can go in deeply, honestly and safely. We have so much to celebrate including the grace granted to one another when beautiful challenges arose.
Now, we're moving into week four of the world premier production and I've spend the past few days reflecting on all that we've accomplished in just a year and a half. While I haven't seen the play since we opened, I plan to check out a few performances before we close (and this production is forever gone) on June 30th. It's been great fun to keep up with how everything has been going through production reports and quite lovely to read responses from friends and colleagues who have seen the play.
Really and truly, it's all been quite thrilling! I feel rather fortunate to have had this experience and opportunity. It's been amazing to have the support and faith of the Theater J's staff and wonderful to work with the cast, design and production team. In truth, I don't think I'll ever be able to articulate my appreciation for all that this collaboration and this process has taught me.
Over the course of this week, I'm going to share interviews from The Hampton Years cast. But first, I have a treat for you. At first rehearsal, Shirley shared her vision and hopes for the production. The words she spoke were so passionate, eloquent and sincere. I was quite moved and wanted to find a way to keep them forever. Generously, she's allowed me to share them here with all of you. Please enjoy...
Elizabeth Catlett said:
"Combining realism and abstract art is very interesting to me. People are always trying to separate them out and say that you are either abstract or you are realistic; either you are abstract or you are figurative. And I don’t believe it. I think any good figurative artist relies strongly on abstractions."
I think this quote—and its recognition of duality--speaks to THE HAMPTON YEARS in many ways. Abstract or realistic. Black or white. American or refugee. Teacher or student. Visual or Haptic. Military or civilian. Artist or Educator.
The story of the play itself which is both realistic--based on very real histories; and abstracted – utilizing inspired fictions created from the mind and imagination of our playwright.
And there’s the challenge of each character to convince the world around them to allow a human to hold multiple truths: so that someone like Samella Lewis can be an artist, a writer, a visionary, an African-American, a woman, a teacher…all of those identities at once, and still all of those identities wholly and fully.
And the ideas we are pursuing with design—combining realism and theatrical gesture.
It is easy when we can decide that something is all one thing, or all another. But it opens us up to real creativity, to deep exploration--when we allow for something to hold many truths. Elizabeth Catlett was, unsurprisingly, speaking astutely of both art, and the world.
It is hard to believe that the world in which the Hampton Years takes place--with segregated schools, neighborhoods, busses, bathrooms, lunch counters—was one of such a recent past. And then sometimes, it’s not hard to believe at all.
Hampton Institute was founded as a place to develop “the head, heart, and hand” so it seems wholly appropriate to be telling this story here at the DCJCC, which aims to feed “the head, heart, and hand” (and of course, the stomach, but we have that in the play as well.) And now--to be honest--when I read that Hampton motto, my brain jumped to the Friday Night Lights mantra. I’ve recently started watching the show, and fully admit that I am moved each time they repeat their rallying cry of “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” And when I watch that show, I think of my friend Jacqueline Lawton, who was raised in Tennessee County, Texas—which it turns out, is only about two hours away from Hopkins County Texas, where the show takes place, and I wonder—is that like where Jackie grew up? This also speaks of duality—as I think of me and Jackie growing up almost as far North and as far South as you can be in this country, and now having the opportunity to work together to tell this remarkable story of dual histories, dual backgrounds, unified by the desire to create art and tell stories. It feels very apt, and it’s an honor and a delight.
But that’s all fodder for another play, and this is all to say—I am pleased to enter this rehearsal process with head, heart and hand--full AND clear, and to do so with all of you!
SHIRLEY SEROTSKY is the Director of Literary and Public Programs at Theater J, where she directed the 2010 production of Mikveh, the 2009 production of The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall (which received a 2009 Helen Hayes Nomination for Best New Play), and the 2011 production of The History of Invulnerability. She began her theater education as a performance major in the musical theater program at the University of Michigan, but soon detoured into directing which she studied at the North Carolina School of the Arts. After graduation she moved to New York, where she worked at the Women’s Project and Productions; interned for the Cherry Lane Theater; and was employed as an editorial assistant for a Jewish organization. In August 2001 she moved to Washington, DC to fulfill a nine-month Kenan Fellowship at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts. There she worked as an assistant director and dramaturg on several productions. Since 2002 she has worked as a freelance director and dramaturg in the Washington, DC area and beyond, directing for the Source Festival, Theater Alliance, Catalyst Theater, Rorschach Theater, Catholic University, the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, Journeymen Theater, and on several out-of-town productions, including at the Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theater of Louisville. She has taught young people and adults at The Actor’s Center, the Musical Theater Center, and Theater Lab. She co-founded Bouncing Ball Theatrical Productions with Shawn Northrip (which aims to develop and produce new and innovative musical theater works). Training: BFA, North Carolina School of the Arts. Member of The 2002 Designer/Director Workshop with Ming Cho Lee and the 2003 Lincoln Center Director's Lab.
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!