Jacqueline E. Lawton, author of our June 14 Fresh Takes reading “Noms de Guerre”, was named one of the top 30 national leading black playwrights by Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute . She received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener Fellow. In addition to being the Online Curator of the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Blog Salon for Theatre Communications Group, she is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Department of Dramatic Art and serves as dramaturg for PlayMakers Repertory Company. The world premiere of her adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is just ending its wildly popular extended run at Adventure Theatre MTC in Rockville, Maryland. We were glad she could find time to sit down for an interview with us!
WAM Theatre: We’ve read the plot synopsis for Noms de Guerre, but give us a deeper sense of what the play is about. What inspired you to write it?
Jacqueline E. Lawton: The inspiration was three-fold. First, when I started researching and writing it in the Fall of 2013, the war on women’s rights, and particularly our reproductive rights, was getting loud, and it was frightening. However, I was heartened that the counter-argument seemed to be getting louder too. I was involved as an activist and I wanted to respond artistically to those conversations. I made my central character, Mira, a black Republican woman who is running for office. She has been closing down women’s health clinics that don’t meet hospital regulated health code standards because she believes women deserve the highest standard of care. In doing so, however, she is also limiting women’s access to care. Her long-time friend Jude, an award-winning journalist, is opposed to her actions, and this strains their relationship.
That brings me to the second inspiration for the play. Over the past few years many of my girlfriends have gotten married and/or started families, and that has changed our relationships and their priorities. It’s been fascinating to watch some of these women transition from being career women to wives and mothers. I wanted to write about a long-term friendship between two women and how their relationship changes as they grow into themselves and strive to attain their goals in life.
The third inspiration came the day when the Naval Yard shooting occurred, literally within walking distance of my house near the nation’s capitol in Washington, DC. I come from a military family – my brother, father, mother, and grandfather were all in the military, and my sister works for the Veterans Affairs Department – and I knew that day that issues of PTSD, mental health and how we support our military men and women during and after their service had to come into the story. We train these men and women warriors, but we don’t understand how to untrain them. How do we better serve the men and women who dedicate their body, mind, and soul to keep us safe and alive
With all of this, I’m trying to call attention to how policies impact our everyday lives, and what happens when you do speak truth to power. So in the play, Mira is running for governor and her husband, Douglas, has just come back from his fourth tour in Afghanistan and he is not in good shape. He’s done something terrible. The military tries to help him as much as possible, but when they realize the full extent of what he’s done–and Jude plays a role in uncovering what happened, he has to go to jail. Of course, this has a negative impact on Mira’s political future, her marriage, and her friendship with Jude.
WAM: Those are big, provocative issues – and just the kind of challenging topics we hope to engage with our Fresh Takes audience about. What has been the play’s production history so far?
Jacqueline: I wrote it when I was a part of Arena Stage’s Playwrights Arena, which was a beautiful, inspiring, and empowering journey. There were six playwrights in all and we shared our writing experiences and scenes. In the Fall, we had a workshop with actors and I made significant revisions. Then, in spring of 2014, we had an open rehearsal showcase, which was rigorous, productive, and pushed this play even further. I did all of this writing and rewriting under the tutelage of a brilliant and amazing dramaturg named Jocelyn Clark.
After that, the play was selected by Pasadena Playhouse for their Hot House New Play Development Series. It was workshopped for one week with Diane Rodriguez directing, and that was a wonderful experience. It also received a reading at Rep Stage the following month, under the direction of Otis Ramsey-Zoe. It’s received a lot of attention and was even nominated for a 2014 Kilroy, but I have yet to see it produced. In truth, it is increasingly difficult for playwrights to see their work on stage. Plays written by men tend to get staged before and more than plays by women, and plays by white women tend to get staged before and more than plays written by women of color. These barriers exist and are challenging.
WAM: We are excited to present this reading of Noms de Guerre as the first event in the 2015 Lift Ev’ry Voice Festival here in the Berkshires, which celebrates our local African-American community and this year is focusing on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Jacqueline: I think it’s wonderful that WAM has partnered with Lift Ev’ry Voice, and I am excited that this is the play you chose. Noms de Guerre is about middle class black people, two educated couples, children being raised in an intact family. Too often when people of color are represented in art they are shown in poverty or involved with crime. The class strata at which black people are represented is crucial.
WAM: Your adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is about to close and the academic year at UNC Chapel Hill is ending. What’s next for you?
Jacqueline: Right now I am one of seven playwrights involved in the inaugural Playwrights Collective at Center Stage in Baltimore, and I am just finishing the first draft of a play entitled Among These Wild Things which explores the intersection of race, religion, art, and science.
Then in the fall I will work on a rewrite of my play The Hamptom Years at Virginia Stage Company, along to returning to my teaching job at UNC. I will also be dramaturging with the Playmakers Rep Company, which is in residence at the University. Teaching and dramaturging makes me a better playwright and a better advocate for social and racial diversity. We need to move forward and teach what has been left out of theatre history for so long. I feel really alive and blessed to have an opportunity to do all this work.
WAM: We are really looking forward to the reading on June 14 and delighted to have you a part of Fresh Takes and Lift Ev’ry Voice.
Jacqueline: I am excited that WAM wants to engage with the community about these topics and that you have an audience in the Berkshires who are ready to hear something new and different.