“The Hampton Years” to play at Gablestage through University collaboration

By Samantha Davis / Staff Writer

On Monday, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. the Department of Theatre, the Exile Studies Program, Center for Humanities in an Urban Environment and the Department of English at FIU in collaboration with the Coral Gables Museum will be presenting a stage reading of “The Hampton Years” at the Gablestage in the Biltmore Hotel. The reading is directed by Phillip Church, chair and artistic director and head of external and community engagement.

The play tells the story of Jewish painter Viktor Lowenfeld who escaped Austria and came to the United States in 1938. After declining an offer to teach at Harvard, Lowenfeld chose to take a position at Hampton Institute, an all black college in Virginia. It was there that he met African-American artists John Biggers and Samella Lewis and helped them become renowned artists under his tutelage.

“The Hampton Years” depicts the difficulty and intense discrimination that Biggers and Lewis faced while trying to rise to prominence as artists in a society that did everything in its power to prevent Black Americans from expressing themselves artistically.

This play creates a link between the Jewish people and the African Americans. From Lowenfeld’s emigration from Austria, where he experienced the unspeakable ways in which Jewish people suffered, to the Jim Crow South of the United States, where he saw firsthand the racism and suffering African-Americans faced.

The playwright, Jacqueline Lawton, first wrote the script in 2011. After attending a reading series called “Backstage at the Lincoln” in the fall of 2010, Lawton developed an interest in the relationship between blacks and Jews. She then became inspired to create a play about it; two-and-a-half years later, “The Hampton Years” was born.

Lawton has held stage readings of “The Hampton Years” in other locations, one of which includes The National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia in February 2013.

The planning for the reading on Oct. 20 has been in the works for about a year and a half. Michael Gillespie, English professor and director of the Center for the Humanities in an Urban Environment, approached Lawton in the spring of 2013 with the idea of having her production at the Gablestage. This will be Lawton’s first time in Miami.

“I’m excited to bring this play to a new community and share my work with the artists here,” Lawton said.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how the play will impact the audience, how it will raise questions and spark conversation,” she mentioned.

For Lawton, one of the most important aspects of this event is to create a connection between issues in the play and issues in the community.

Another thing the playwright is looking forward to is hearing the new script she created. The script that will be read at the Gablestage is different from the original script she wrote in 2011. In the new version, the time span is two years instead of seven. A few characters have also been taken out such as American artist Charles White.

The reading at the Gablestage will focus more on the three main characters, Viktor Lowenfeld, John Biggers and Samella Lewis.

“The newer version will place more emphasis on the impact of World War II, racism and the ways in which art can advocate for social change in the community,” Lawton said.

Some of the actors in the reading are from the Department of Theatre.

Aaron Alpern, adjunct professor, will be playing as Viktor Lowenfeld; Rebecca Covey, assistant professor, as Viktor’s wife, Margaret; Wayne Robinson, Jr., associate professor and head of performance, as President Bridgeman; and Stephen Neal, adjunct instructor as Dr. Malcolm Shaw MacLean.

One of the actresses, Madeleine Escarne, a junior seeking her second degree in Bachelor of Fine Arts in Performance, has dived deep into her character, Samella Lewis.

In the play, Samella is in her early 20s and has just transferred to Hampton Institute, after having been under the tutelage of Elizabeth Catlett, a sculptor and printmaker.

“Samella is such an advocate, not just for blacks, but for the equal treatment of all people,” Escarne said.

“You can compare the racism against the Jews to the racism against black people. Jewish people have been thrown in chambers, tortured and burned while black people have been lynched and beaten. It’s important to understand the persecution of the Jewish people and the fact that black people are still being persecuted today,” Escarne added.

Samella Lewis faced unbelievable racism in her fight to be recognized as an artist, and when Escarne took on her character, it reminded her of the racism she has faced in her own life.

“When I was in the production of ‘Intimate Apparel’ in Gainesville in 2011, someone got upset and said, ‘Get these niggers off stage!’” Escarne said.

“I’ve experienced racism while out shopping at Aventura Mall, and many other places,” Escarne mentioned. “People don’t see me as Haitian, they only see me as black and although people may not understand what I go through, I want to open lines of communication between people by playing Samella’s character.”

Admission to the reading is free and open to the public, so anyone can take advantage of this opportunity to learn about the story of John Biggers and Samella Lewis. All who are interested in attending are encouraged to arrive early, as seating is limited and available on a first come, first serve basis.

“These people [Lewis and Biggers] are amazing. I want everyone to know the names of these extraordinary artists who used their art for social justice and the uplift of the community,” Lawton said.

There was also a panel discussion, “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Lessons and Legacies” before the reading, on Sunday Oct. 19 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

For more information about the panel discussion, click here: http://humanities.fiu.edu/events/2014/beyond-swastika-and-jim-crow-lessons-and-legacies/


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