Responding to The Migration Series: Laura Shamas

The Phillips has commissioned five plays from local playwrights in response to Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series.  The resulting 10-minute, one-act plays will be performed on Oct. 20. In this series, we interview each playwright.


Laura Shamas

Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
Laura Shamas: I grew up in the theatre. My mother is an actor-director. I never had any choice, really.

Tell me a little bit about your writing process. Do you have any writing rituals? Do you write in the same place or in different places?
LS: I’m usually on the go, so my process is motivated by deadlines or themes I cannot let go.

Please share your thoughts on what The Migration Series means to you. What excited you about being a part of this festival?
LS: It is such an honor to be asked to write a short play, inspired by the work of Jacob Lawrence, by The Phillips Collection.

Tell us a bit about your play. What is it about, and what do you hope audiences will walk away thinking about after hearing it?
LS: My play is about a close Muslim-American family that faces violence directed at them. I hope audiences will come away thinking about how charged prejudicial rhetoric in presidential campaigns harms American society.

Which of the Migration Series panels inspired your play? What drew you to it? What was it like to write a play inspired by a work of art?
LS: I was inspired by Panel no. 51, because of its use of fire. I immediately started to think about who lit the fires—and why.

Why do you think the message of The Migration Series still resonates today? How does your play relate to that message?
LS: The Migration Series still resonates today because it depicts great truths about what it means to be human. I hope my play honors Lawrence’s work and intention by showing how Panel no. 51 is absolutely current and heartbreaking.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming playwrights?
LS: See all the plays you can. That can be expensive, so I used to volunteer as an usher to help defray costs. Get inside a theater at least once a week if possible.

What next for you? Where can we follow your work?
LS: In September and October: AMELIA LIVES, my one-woman show about Amelia Earhart, runs Sept. 24–Oct. 2 at the Women’s Museum of California, produced by American History Theatre, San Diego. My new full-length play CIRCULAR is part of the Artemisia Theatre in Chicago’s annual Fall Festival of New Plays on Oct. 1. It’s about Circe, Odysseus, and PTSD.

A Red, White, and Blue Reminder

It’s National Voter Registration Day. Register if you haven’t already, or spread the word if you have!


Gifford Beal, Three figures in front of U.S. flag, circa 1910-20. Graphite pencil, watercolor, and gouache on wove paper, 5.4 x 5.1 in (uneven cut). The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Gift of Gifford Beal Family. Courtesy of Kraushaar Galleries, 2011

Did You Know? Whitfield Lovell Edition

The National Museum of African American History and Culture officially opens its doors tomorrow! We’re celebrating by highlighting the work of Whitfield Lovell, whose Card Series II is part of the new Smithsonian’s permanent collection, and whose Kin Series (along with a number of his other related works) are on view at the Phillips beginning Oct. 8.

1) Inspiration for Whitfield Lovell’s Kin Series images came from photo booths photos, passports photos, mugshots and the like. The artist combines freely-drawn Conté crayon faces with time-worn objects such as a brooch, clock, shoe, or mirror.


Whitfield Lovell, Kin VII (Scent of Magnolia), 2008. Conté on paper,silk flower wreath, 30 x 22 ½ x 3 in. Collection of Julia J. Norrell © Whitfield Lovell and DC Moore Gallery, New York

2) In the words of the artist, Lovell’s work examines “the markings that the past has made—and continues to make—on who we are.”


Whitfield Lovell, After an Afternoon, 2008. Radios with sound, 59 x 72 x 11 in. Courtesy DC Moore Gallery © Whitfield Lovell and DC Moore Gallery, New York

3) Lovell’s most recent works are his “tableaux,” in which he combines Conté crayon portraits on antique wood panels with found objects. The images are drawn freehand in charcoal on the panels, giving careful thought to the grain and texture of each surface,and then adds found objects to create three-dimensional tableaux.


Whitfield Lovell, Gin Song, 2004. Charcoal on wood with found objects (saxophone, metal cups), 77 1/4 x 45 3/16 x 13 in. Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Mary W.F. Howe Fund © Whitfield Lovell and DC Moore Gallery, New York