JACQUELINE LAWTON: To begin, can you tell me how long have you been acting? What was the first play that you ever worked on as an actor? What did you learn from that experience that remains with you today?
STEPHEN HATZAI: I have been involved with the theatre for a long time, since the Punic Wars I think. I got my formal baptism in a musical production of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” as a member of the chorus. It was at Fels Junior High School (now a senior high) in Philadelphia. My mother made my costume, a tunic, and I had to wear tights underneath it - at 13 it was a difficult challenge. Being a part of a group working to create something special was a wonderful experience and being on stage in front of an audience was both frightening and exhilarating.
JL: Why did you decide to get into theater? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
SH: I continued being involved in shows throughout high school and college even though I was specializing in chemistry. The right side of my brain needed exercise and math and science were not providing it; later in life that changed. I became a former scientific and began to focus on the theatre as an educator, actor, director and technician. I started a theatre program and helped found an arts academy in Allentown, PA while I participated in theatre in the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia. I am currently an Equity actor based in Philadelphia.
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. This play 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.?
SH: We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.
JL: THE HAMPTON YEARS also celebrates and honors such extraordinary artists as John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Samella Lewis, Viktor Lowenfeld and Charles White for their bold and courageous ability to overcome these challenges and create beautiful, powerful and lasting works of art. Why do you feel this play is relevant to today audiences?
SH: Art is always relevant. Struggle in the face of obstacles is always present. The works of these brilliant artists speak to me, move me, and would have done so even if I was not familiar with their story. I can only imagine what their impact must be on people of color who see them.
I was also fascinated by the ideas in the play dealing with how art is created. Should art be created haptically or visually. Can a work of art exist for beauty alone? How much of themselves must an artist “put into” the work of art?
JL: Which character are you playing? What, if anything, do you have in common with this character’s passions, values, intentions or belief system?
SH: I am playing the Anonymous Art Critic and President Bridgman. Both are dealing with something that they do not fully understand or appreciate. The Critic denigrates the art in the show because it does not fit his model of what good art should be. Bridgman is working for the betterment of the institution which employs him and is having trouble understanding the value of an art program in the grand scheme of things. I have been in situations where I have not liked a play or piece of art. I have to prod myself to really look at my prejudices and ingrained beliefs to see how they might be influencing my opinion.
JL: If there is one thing you want audiences to walk away knowing or thinking about after experiencing THE HAMPTON YEARS, what would that be?
SH: That good art transcends the race, gender, ethnicity and culture of the artist who creates it. The race, gender, ethnicity or culture of the artist will inform a work of art but can never diminish or negate it. The race, gender, ethnicity or culture of an observer may enhance an encounter with a work of art, but I should never never diminish or negate it.
JL: What’s next for you as an actor? Where can we follow your work?
SH: I will be doing several short reading with Philadelphia Theatre Collective in early March.
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!