This past Saturday evening, THE HAMPTON YEARS received a reading as part of Theatre Ariel's Salon series. As Pennsylvania’s only professional theatre dedicated to illuminating the rich social, cultural and spiritual heritage of the Jewish people, Theatre Ariel entertains, enriches and educates audiences of all ages and cultures through the telling of Jewish Stories, celebrating the laughter and lessons of the shared human experience. When much of the American Theatre, specifically regional theatres, lends itself to the mainstream and doesn’t necessarily reflect the diversity of its community, it's a truly worthwhile and ambitious mission to operate a culturally specific theatre.
Theatre Ariel's Artistic Director, Deborah Baez Mozes directed and the cast included Taysha Canales, Akeem Davis, Khris Davis, Stephen Hatzai, Robert Hargraves, Ian Lithgow, Ashley B. Spearman, and Miriam White. The reading was hosted in the beautiful, elegant and spacious home of Maureen Pelta, Department Chair and Professor of Art History at Moore College of Art, and Alan M. Feldman, Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. The walls of their home were adorned with original works of art that showed a refined taste and interest in African, Jewish, European and American culture. This was the perfect setting for THE HAMPTON YEARS.
Deborah, Shirley Serotsky (Theatre J’s Associate Artistic Director and director of the world premiere of the The Hampton Years), and I arrived along with the cast at 7:00pm to figure out the space and set up music stands. It was an oversold event, but we ended up having enough seats for everyone. We all settled in quite comfortably a little after 8:00pm. Speeches of gratitude and recognition were made. I loved hearing these speeches, because I was instantly made aware of all the people who came together to make this reading happen. I was filled with such appreciation for their efforts. Deborah spoke and then shared that she had learned about my play while looking online for plays about Black and Jewish relations. She found my blog, Staging Strife and Solidarity: Black-Jewish Relations in American Drama, and then reached to me through Theater J.
After the speeches, the reading commenced and I started to feel quite nervous. I so wished that I had had a glass of wine. But the cast was really wonderful and soon, the laughter, nods of resonance and the leaning in to listen more intently began and I felt myself relax. At intermission, I got my glass of wine and then mixed and mingled. Many members of the audience wasted no time speaking to me and asking questions about the play. I didn’t mind at all. In fact, it got me really excited about the post show discussion, which was quite riveting. The reading ended and the audience applauded. I took my seat before this room full and began to take questions.
I spoke about what inspired the play, my research process and the new play development path that the play has been on. I was told by an audience member, that if he had not met me, he would never know if the play had been written by a Jewish person or a Black person, which for me speaks to the play’s balance of themes, evenness of tone and richness of characters. Then, a rather interesting, provocative and compelling conversation emerged. Two members in the audience felt that Jewish values weren’t represented, because religion was not at the forefront of the play. Conversely, several others audience members felt that the Jewish values portrayed in the play allowed Jewish people to be seen as more than just a religion.
Here’s the reason all of this came about: THE HAMPTON YEARS is a play about race and ethnicity and specifically, about how racial prejudice and ethnic discrimination impact the lives of individuals in the arts, in academia, and in the military. It examines the impact of World War II on Jewish refugees living in the United States and their role in shaping the lives and careers of African American art students in the segregated south. My research began with a deep investigation of Jewish history, culture, art and religious. I soon learned that Viktor and Margaret Lowenfeld, our Austrian Jewish characters, were not religious. Instead, they were upper-class, part of the Intelligentsia and quite assimilated into Austrian culture. As such, we don't see religious rituals taking place in the play.
It was truly enlightening to participate in this discussion and I imagine this question will come up again and again. While I won’t dishonor the characters by adding religious ritual to the play, it might be interesting to have President MacLean or perhaps even Elizabeth observe the absence of a religious practice in the lives of Viktor and Margaret. Something to ponder in the days, weeks, and rewrites ahead.
For now, let's enjoy some photos from the reading:
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!