A D.C. playwright’s tale of a refugee professor and the artists he inspired

Jason Hornick - Jacqueline E. Lawton’s new play tells the story of a refu­gee Austrian Jewish professor and his students.

Jacqueline E. Lawton’s “The Hampton Years” is about as local as local can get: The D.C.-based playwright’s world premiere got its start at Theater J’s first Locally Grown Festival. Lawton’s world-premiere play follows the Austrian Jewish professor Viktor Lowenfeld and two of his students at the Hampton Institute in Virginia who went on to become iconic African American artists: John Biggers and Samella Lewis. Lawton talked to Backstage about her play’s origins and why it took her until now to discover Biggers and Lewis.

“I went to see Theater J’s reading series, ‘Backstage at the Lincoln,’ at the Lincoln Theatre in 2010. . . . It was a series of three plays and all three dealt specifically with black and Jewish theater. I was just really curious about what inspired Theater J to look at this issue. And Shirley [Serotsky, Theater J’s associate artistic director] told me they had a long history of looking at the relationship between black and Jewish [communities] onstage. I thought, I want to propose a play [about this], not thinking it would ever get to where it is now.”

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Lawton visited the “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow” exhibit at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. “There’s this quote from John Biggers that opens the exhibit,” she said, and it inspired her latest work: “A new dawn challenges this world and demands the salt of every one of us. There can be no doubt of our sodality, for in each of us we reflect one another’s image, and our composite image mirrors the tragedy and the comedy of the whole human race.”

“I had to find out about his relationship between [Biggers] and Viktor [Lowenfeld], who was a refugee who chose to teach at Hampton instead of Harvard,” she said.

“It was just remarkable that, prior to this moment, I had not heard of these artists. As an African American artist, I was just so stunned. I do a lot of research about black history, and the fact that I didn’t know about these people, I felt so bad and also felt . . . other people probably don’t know about them either.”

She has her theories as to why the stories of Biggers and Lewis aren’t often told. “When we tell the story of art history, we look at these big names of people. The Picassos. And when we tell the story of black art history, our focus is on the Harlem Renaissance. . . . And let’s backtrack it even bigger: When you tell the story of African American history, you get told slavery, the Civil War, the antebellum [era], the ’20s and ’30s because of the Harlem Renaissance, and then you jump 20 years to the ’50s and ’60s with the civil rights movement. There’s a period of history that’s just looked over . . . [except for] the Tuskegee Airmen, that’s military history, and Jackie Robinson, that’s sports history. . . . There’s a single narrative that’s told in this country . . . and oftentimes, moments get erased or completely overlooked. In truth, I think that’s why I didn’t know about them. But it’s been my mission to fix that!”

“The Hampton Years” is a blend of history and fiction. “Viktor left Vienna on the night the Germans invaded in 1938, went to England and then to New York. I wanted to tell from the moment he decided he was going to leave New York for Hampton [to] when he decided to leave Hampton to go to Penn State.”

Once Lawton knew she was working within this seven-year period, “I then looked at: What was going on in the world? In World War II? In black history? So I laid that out, literally, the timelines. And then I looked on what specifically was going on in these people’s lives. And from there, I picked what would be interesting and dramatic moments.

“Other than that, it’s imagining. It’s asking that wonderful theater question of, what if?”

May 29 to June 30, Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW,
washingtondcjcc.org/center-for-arts/theater-j
, 202-518-9400.

Swordfights at Synetic

Paata Tsikurishvili has wanted to bring “The Three Musketeers” to Synetic Theater for years. “The adventure, the themes, the swordfights: Everything seems to be very much Synetic,” said Tsikurishvili. “I always wanted to do it. But to be honest, Dumas’s novel is huge, and it’s not easy to produce the stage version. It’s not easy to develop and adapt a play out of it.”

But after “pushing hard [to do] more wordless productions for a couple of years,” even going outside Shakespeare’s canon with “King Arthur” and “Jekyll and Hyde,” Tsikurishvili said, “You get tired of it.” He was ready to focus on some spoken storytelling.

“All I do is get as creative as I can,” he said. “I want to take it to a different level, be more innovative, take more risks.”

The two-act production taps into Synetic’s in-house talent: The swordfights were designed by Ben Cunis, a Synetic artistic associate. Resident composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze provided original music.

“The music is a production itself,” said Tsikurishvili. “We’re almost underscoring everything, like in a movie. . . . There are no synthesizers. It’s less surreal and abstract, unlike my previous productions, say ‘The Tempest’ or ‘Jekyll and Hyde.’ Here, it is a more classical approach.”

As for the action: “The swordfights are just a joy to watch. It’s still dangerous . . . but my actors are ready to take any risks.”

Thursday to June 19 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington, synetictheater.org, 703-824-8060.

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