Did You Know? Jacob Lawrence Edition

We’re thrilled to have a brand new DC museum neighbor starting this  weekend! The National Museum of African American History and Culture officially opens its doors on Saturday, Sept. 24, and in celebration we’re highlighting the work of Jacob Lawrence, a key artist from the new Smithsonian’s permanent collection (and the star of a special exhibition at the Phillips this fall):

1) Jacob Lawrence painted all 60 panels of his seminal work The Migration Series simultaneously. To keep the colors consistent, Lawrence applied one hue at a time to every painting where it was to appear.

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Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north., between 1940 and 1941. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1942 © 2016 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

2) Lawrence became the first African American artist to be represented by a New York gallery when The Migration Series was shown at Manhattan’s Downtown Gallery in 1941. It was after seeing the works here that museum founder Duncan Phillips fell in love with Lawrence’s work, and gave the artist his first solo exhibition show in 1942.

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Installation of The Migration Series at Downtown Gallery

3) Jacob Lawrence was 24 years old when he painted The Migration Series. He did so with the help of his wife Gwendolyn Knight, who assisted in prepping the boards and writing captions.

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Jacob Lawrence working on Panel no. 55 of The Migration Series

Responding to The Migration Series: Annalisa Dias

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.

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Annalisa Dias

Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
Annalisa Dias: I did theatre in middle school and high school. I had an English teacher who suggested I try participating in the Pittsburgh Public Theatre (PPT)’s annual Shakespeare monologue contest in 8th grade, so I did that, and then very quickly got hooked and participated in basically every education program that PPT offered for the next five years. I still look at my experience with their Shakespeare Intensive program as formative. This was a three-week high school summer program by the end of which students put up an entire play on the PPT stage. The year I did it, we did Macbeth. I’ve been sort of obsessed with that play ever since. The irony, of course, is that as my understanding of colonial power structures has grown, I’m no longer a huge proponent of Shakespeare. In fact, just recently, I was invited to speak at DC’s Shakespeare Theater Company about race, identity, and the implications of colonialism on the supposed universality of Shakespeare.

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?
AD: My process is different depending on the project. Some of my writing is solitary. I think many people would tell you that much of my writing is collaborative or devised. It’s interesting to think about ritual in that respect—I’ve been reflecting recently on the active and contemplative lifestyles (I come from a Catholic background, what can I say?), and now I’m wondering about whether different writing or playmaking modes might map onto those. Maybe there’s something to be said for striking a balance between active and contemplative playmaking.

Please share your thoughts on what The Migration Series means to you. What excited you about being a part of this festival?
AD: The Migration Series is so fascinating to me for a number of reasons, not least of which is its narrative capacity. It’s exciting that all of the panels are being brought back together so they can be experienced as a whole story. Recently, I had a passing thought when walking through the Phillips about how the gaps in the separated The Migration Series narrative actually reflect something of the gaps in our understanding of the complexities of American systemic racism.

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?
AD: My piece is about the current, largely unseen and coerced, migration of black and brown bodies into prison cells. The United States currently incarcerates more people than any country in the world. Our society has criminalized black and brown bodies, and then legally sanctioned disenfranchisement and discrimination against those folks. And our education system is complicit in that. If anything, I’d hope people walk away thinking about the way The Migration Series as not just a historical artifact, but also a signpost that points to still prevalent racism in our country.

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?
AD: I was inspired by so many of the panels, but particularly Panel no. 49. There was something about the acceptance of physical divisions in daily life that spoke to me about our contemporary assumptions about physical spaces. I’m a visual artist myself, so I actually started by doing some pen sketches based on the spatial composition of Panel no. 49. Believe it or not, that led to an image of a balloon with chain link as its ribbon. And that image is alluded to in the piece that I wrote.

Why do you think the message of The Migration Series still resonates today? How does your play relate to that message?
AD: I think the difficult reality is that we live in a racist society, so while we’d like to think that the civil rights movement of the ’60s put an end to the spectre of racial disenfranchisement and discrimination, the reality is that racism is still alive and well. What’s troubling about The Migration Series for me is that I don’t want to think about it as though racism is over and solved, and we might run that risk by sheer virtue of it being housed within a museum. I’m excited by the opportunity to engage with it through theatre, where contemporary bodies might add another layer of complexity to the dialogue about our lived experience with racism today.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming playwrights?
AD: In many ways, I think I still am one! So I guess the advice I’d give to myself is: be rigorous in your thinking about the ethics of creating art, failure is necessary to creation, and be as generous and kind to those around you as you can.

What next for you? Where can we follow your work?
AD: I’m a Producing Playwright with The Welders, so I’ll be working here in DC for the next few years, and you can find more information on my website or Twitter @ajdm. I also co-founded the DC Coalition for Theatre & Social Justice, and if you’d like more information on that, please visit the website or email dcctsj@gmail.com.

Responding to The Migration Series: Jacqueline E. Lawton

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.

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Jacqueline E. Lawton. Photo by Jason Hornick

Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
Jacqueline E. Lawton: My mother introduced me to the theatre through her love of MGM musicals. I was immediately transfixed. The first play that I saw live was a theatre for young audiences touring production of Jack and Beanstalk. It was already one of my favorite stories, because Jack longed for more and ultimately learned the value of what he already had at home. It was magical! I was completely enchanted and knew that I wanted to be part of telling stories in this way. In middle school, I was able to do this through poetic interpretation, and in high school, I was able to take part in the theatre. In college, I was introduced to the professional world of playwriting and solo performance by playwright Amparo Garcia Crow. It was Dr. Oni Olomo Joni Jones who introduced me to performance ethnography and the beauty and complexity of the Black Aesthetic. While earning my MFA in Playwriting, I was introduced to playwright Ruth Margraf, feminist theorist Jill Dolan, and actress Fran Dorn. Each of these women had a deeply profound and lasting impact on my life and artistic journey. It is no exaggeration that I would not be who I am today if it weren’t for them.

Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Do you have any writing rituals? Do you write in the same place or in different places?
JEL: I sit in front of my laptop, stare at the blank page, and ask, “How has anyone ever written a play before?” I ask this, even though I’ve just finished writing a play. From there, I start with the characters. Their names are revealed to me, and I endeavor to learn as much as I can about their hopes, dreams, fears, secrets, and desires. I investigate their worlds and everyday lives. I watch films and documentaries. I read books, articles, and plays. I listen to music and look at art. I learn about their politics, social customs, and food ways. Then I name the play, which in and of itself is quite a process! From there, I outline the structure of the play and start to write. I don’t always follow the outline, but it helps as a guidepost. While writing, I continue to research. Also, I keep a journal and pen with me, because a piece of dialogue, a monologue, or stage directions will come to me at any given moment.

Please share your thoughts on what The Migration Series means to you. What excited you about being a part of this festival?
JEL: In April of 2014, I was invited to join a select group of scholars and practitioners to help shape the interpretation and programming of the People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series exhibition. I was honored. As a teaching artist, I had used the panels as part of my classes for years. I guided students to create plays, poems, sculptures, and dances based on the panels. I felt it was important for the students to study the history of this country through art. I created this festival to honor the work of Jacob Lawrence and the lasting impact of his great art.

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?
JEL: My play, A Long Arduous Journey, is about the devastating civil war in Syria. It follows a young woman, Sabeen, who has emigrated to the U.S. with her family. Her brother chose to stay behind and fight for their homeland. While in the U.S., Sabeen meets Malcolm, who helps her update her resume and look for work. He has been out of work for two years, but does odd jobs now and again. Over the course of the play, the two of them learn more about each other and their lives. My hope is that audiences see this play and remember that immigrants coming to this country are searching for a better life for themselves and their families.

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?
JEL: My play was inspired by panels 57, 13, and 25. Panel no. 57 is my absolute favorite. The woman is determined, focused, and purposeful. It takes great strength to stir all of those clothes. She reminds me of my mother. Panel no. 13, this image of barren land, reminded me of the drought in Syria and the strike that comes when the land can no longer yield fruit and vegetation. Panel no. 25, the image of an empty corner of a room, made me think of the homes that were left empty and unattended both during the Great Migration and also during a war. The process of writing the play based on the panels came quite easily. They already have such a strong, inspiring narrative. I can imagine coming back to these same panels and writing something else entirely.

Why do you think the message of The Migration Series still resonates today? How does your play relate to that message?
JEL: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series is a masterful piece of art. While capturing the challenges of life in the South and the hope of a better life up in the North, Lawrence captures the harsh realities of migration and a new life that so many faced. He creates a space for the viewer to experience the journey of the migration and that is powerful. I hope that my play does this as well.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming playwrights?
JEL: Be bold, honest, and determined. Have the courage to write plays that show the world the way you see and experience it. You’re the only one who can do that, which makes you absolutely essential to the American Theatre. See as many plays and readings as you can. Make friends with other theatre artists. Talk, argue, complain, yell and cry to them about the kind of work you want to be creating, the kind that isn’t being created where you live, and then go create it. Honor and protect your writing time. Don’t ever stop writing!

What next for you? Where can we follow your work?
JEL: From February 24–April 2, 2017, my play Intelligence will receive a world premiere production at Arena Stage. It’s very exciting! Of course, you can follow me at my website.