Visible + Present

The goal is to make what is unknown, what is hidden, what has been erased, visible, present, that we can no longer say 'Black folks weren’t a part of this.' We can no longer have that narrative of omission.

Jacqueline E. Lawton

Visible + Present

Melody: Welcome to Southern Futures. I’m your host, Melody Hunter-Pillion, with the Center for the Study of the American South. We’re kicking off our second season of conversations about plays in the future with one of the center's favorite people, playwright Jacqueline Walton. Jacqueline is an assistant professor in the Department of Dramatic Art at UNC. Her play, XIX, complicates the way we think about the 19th Amendment, which at the time gave some women the right to vote. Freedom Hill looks at North Carolina’s historic Princeville in a really new way, and we’ll talk about some of Jacqueline’s other work that takes on social issues. Jacqueline is a dramaturg. She's going to describe that role to us because Jacqueline, when I first met you it was the first time I’d heard that term. Jacqueline, welcome to the show.


Jacqueline: Oh my goodness, thank you Melody. I'm really thrilled to be here 


Melody: Let me ask you about the theater bug though, because I do have a theater person in my family. My sister Barbette. She was bitten by the bug at a really early age. How did you come into theater, and was drama an early love for you? 


Jacqueline: Yes. It was very much an early love. So, I was raised in East Texas in a little farming community called Tennessee Colony. There were more cows than people, and it was a very small community in terms of the number of people, the population, but large in terms of the landscape. So I started writing little plays and stories about my stuffed animals to entertain my sister, and she's 2 years under me. She's a year and nine months younger, but two years under me in school. So I’d write these little plays about, like, what our stuffed animals did while we were away in school or any time we were away and then we would act them out. So I just, I love storytelling. I always loved storytelling. And then my mom, she loves Judy Garland and all those musicals of the 1940s -- 30s, 40s, 50s -- so I grew up on all of those musicals and just fell in love with it. And even though I didn't see myself in a lot of the musicals, right, because it wasn't -- you didn't see a lot of, you know, Black girls, you know, in the musicals, I still saw community. I saw individuals fighting for something, striving for something, working to become someone, and I found myself in those stories, and I wanted to do that. I just, I knew very early on that I wanted to write stories and be in plays and write plays. So dramaturg, dramaturgy, it's relatively new when you think about the history of theater, which is centuries years old, right? So a dramaturg is someone who -- multiple roles. They can do research around the world of play, and that research is useful for a playwright if they're working on a new play, perhaps. Or the director, the actors, the design team, but also the theater when they're thinking about how they're going to introduce the play to their community. A dramaturg is also someone who helps playwrights with their play. So they’ll read multiple drafts and they'll ask questions about the world, the play, the characters. And then a dramaturg is also someone who is in communication with the audience about the world of play, the theater, the production, why this production right now. So I often call dramaturgs the love-bugs of the American Theater, because at the center of our work is a love for this play, this production, and we're sharing that play, that production with everyone. Like, we're standing on the corner in the rain saying, “Everyone come see this play and here's why!” 


Melody: So I want to talk about some specific projects of yours, especially when you blend playwriting and dramaturgy. So how does that work in Freedom Hill, your project about historic Princeville?


Jacqueline: Okay, so with every play I do research around the world the play, even if it's a contemporary play I'm doing research. And so it first starts with a big question that I have about the world, “Why is something happening and who is it happening to? And if it’s marginalized communities, how are they impacted and what resources do those people need?” Those are the big questions that come around. So as more and more we’re talking about the impact of climate change on coastal communities and living in North Carolina, I’m becoming even more aware of the impact of flooding. And I did some research and Princeville is the oldest historically black town in America. And so I said, “Oh my gosh, I have to learn about these people and I want to write this play.” And I learned about the multiple hurricanes from Hurricane Matthew to Hurricane Floyd, all the hurricanes that the people live through with great resiliency, and I wanted to understand why. I learned very quickly that they're still very much in recovery. The town of Princeville is still recovering from the multiple hurricanes, and they lost their museum. The museum was destroyed in ‘99. There are very few artifacts remaining, and when I spoke with the woman I said, “Well what -- So I'm a playwright, what do you need?” And she said, “Our history. Why we care so deeply about this town, why we refuse to to move like everyone is asking us to.” And so I said, “I can do that.” And then two of my colleagues -- Vivienne Benesch is the artistic director of Playmakers -- said, “Wow, this sounds like Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.” And then my dramaturg, Jules Odendahl-James  -- two separate conversations -- she said, “Wow, you know what this sounds like? Our Town.” And for those who don't know, Our Town is a play about everyday people. It’s a Northern -- Northeastern city, I think it’s New Hampshire, and it’s their everyday lives. You know, we get to meet them over the course of three movements. And so I said “I can do that!” Hi. You know, one of the greatest plays ever written and I'm going to adapt it. But I set out to do just that. I set out to adapt it. And so we're learning about what happened to recently enslaved individuals when they had their freedom and they were building their homes for the first time, building community in a new way unencumbered by shackles, but still very much facing racial oppression and racial aggression from their neighbors. And it became a really powerful experience. So the research is, what do I need to know about the people in order to speak true to their lives and experiences, so those things always work hand-in-hand with me as a playwright. 


Melody: I want to hear some of Freedom Hill. Would you mind just reading some for us? 


Jacqueline: I don't mind at all. So, just to give a bit of context. So, the third movement of my play mirrors the third act of Our Town. And I feel like I'm spoiling things, but I am just going to have to spoil things because in order for you to understand. So, my character Bella has died. And she died in childbirth, which is something that when we think about health disparities in the Black community that's something that's very much still prevalent now. So her mother passed years before, and so she's now at the cemetery and in Heaven with her mom, and she's learning about what's ahead. Now in Our Town, what's ahead is a period of rest. As a Black woman, I know that my ancestors are with me every step of the way because I’ve decided to be a woman who speaks out loud a lot. So my ancestors are with me a lot. And so Abigail, who's Bella's mother, and Ernestine, who's the town manager or the narrator of the play, are walking Bella through what's next for her. So here's this excerpt: 


Abigail is seated in her chair. Ernestine and Bella return to the cemetery.
Bella: Oh Mama, I should have listened to you. I should have focused on what's ahead. 
Abigail: What’s head is no better than what we had, 
Bella: But Mama, how can you say that? What we had was so beautiful.
Beautiful? There's nothing beautiful about poverty and oppression. 
No Mama, but what we had, we did the best we could. Black folks everywhere were doing the best they could. That's worth holding onto. 
Abigail: The whole thing was like that Sisyphus you read about when you were at school. As soon as he pushed the boulder up the hill, it rolled back down again. The more we fought, the harder they pushed back. The further Black folks got on in life, a herd of white people fought to hold us back. We may have been free, but they did everything they could to take our rights away from us. The way we were treated -- who would want to live that all over again? 
No, Mama, I can't think that. I can't think it was all that bad. Look at what we had, Mama. 
Abigail: What we had was second-best. Not even second-best, just the waste what was meant to be thrown away. It was what we -- That's why we lived in a swamp. 
Yes Mama, we were poor and we struggled. 
We were mired down with work, Bella, from dawn to dusk, we went from one form of Slavery to another, and now the rest we get is just enough to keep us going for the work ahead. 
But Mama, we fought. We fought with everything that was in us. We fought and we kept going. We might not have achieved our greatest dreams. We might have been pushed back every step of the way, but we were alive. We were living. We tried with everything that was in us and that's what matters, because now that we're dead, we can't even try that anymore. 
And this isn't a scene, the stage manager comes in. 
No Bella, that's where you're wrong. Your work isn't done -- far from it. That's what your mama has been trying to explain. In truth, the life you lived was only just the beginning. The work that you have ahead of you is what will take your greatest strength.


Melody: This is Southern Futures, and our guest is UNC Assistant Professor of Dramatic Arts, playwright, and dramaturg, Jacqueline Lawton. Jacqueline, we talked about Freedom Hill, which is a play you wrote based on Princeville, a town established by freed slaves after the Civil War on the Tar River, but you're also working on a project that will have a different end product for people living today on and near the Lumber River in Robinson County and neighboring counties. So looking at climate change and how communities respond to that, this work is in conjunction with the new Melon-funded Coast Climates, the humanities and the Environment Consortium, of which UNC is a part of. So I’ve never seen a project quite like this. It uses dramaturgy, and the people in the community are really the core of the project, which is in progress right now. Is that right, Jacqueline? 


Jacqueline: That's right. That's right, it is a really, very exciting project. And at the center of the work is an MFA student named Diamond who is extraordinary, and I feel that she is the heartbeat of this project. My work around it -- so what Diamond is teaching the community members to do is a process activity called Photo-Voice. And so individual members are just literally taking photos of their community and they're finding value and meaning in that community, and they're  explaining why this moment, why this image is something that they wanted to capture and share out. And Photo-Voice is used -- it’s a political, social justice tool. It’s used to hear directly from the community about issues that are impacting them and to share those issues and values with policy-makers, you know, folks who make decisions. So what I love about the work that I'm able to do is once we have the photos and the individual community members have shared their stories for why this image matters and what it is they want us to pay attention to, I’m going to help them create a creative response to it. So that could be a poem, a song, a dance, a painting -- it could be whatever they want it to be, but that's my work around it. And what's powerful about the larger conversation around this work is that we’re not just hearing from the individuals who are living here now who are showing great strength, resilience, and vulnerability to show up every day in the community and work to rebuild and maintain and struggle and grow. It’s that we're also working with the Wilson library to capture text, newspaper articles, images a hundred years ago, and we can have a conversation about who was allowed to tell the stories then and who’s allowed to tell the stories now. And we can talk about the knowledge gap of that, because when we look at environmental justice, we look at ways that marginalized communities have not received as much resources, care, attention. Their voices have not been highlighted, and this project does the exact opposite of that. We’re putting the people of the community at the center of the work and their voices are leading the way, and I just feel really proud to be a part of the project. I’m really excited about the work we’re doing. 


Melody: So you’re really busy, Jacqueline. 


(Jacqueline laughs)


Melody: You are! You're also guiding artist-activists who are UNC students, as well as alumni and community members in an initiative called “Imagining UNC’s Future with Art.” So tell us about the initiative and your role working with those artists 


Jacqueline: So this project is Malinda Lowery's response to the Confederate statue and all the activity that happened around the Confederate statue, from the protests to bring down the statue, the “We're not going to take it down. We’re going to put legislation in place that says you can’t remove the statue,” to student activists saying, “Oh it’s going down and we’re taking down,” to the Chancellor saying, “At midnight, we’re removing all evidence of it.” So what we’re doing, what the artists are doing is they’re imagining what is UNC’s future? What conversation are we having with the past, with the present, that is allowing those who come after us to be in a very deep, thoughtful, meaningful, honest interrogation with this campus and with the politics that are on this campus, both written and unwritten, the silence and voiced? 


Melody: Jacqueline, also, this year our nation is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. I mention your play 19 at the start of this podcast, and it reveals much more about the women's right to vote and in the fight for that vote than most of us are usually aware of. So tell us about 19, your play, and also I'm going to ask you to read some of it for us. 


Jacqueline: 19 is a commission from the Women's Theatre Festival, and they were approached by the League of Women Voters in North Carolina, the League of Women Voters in Wake County about, you know, reflecting on the 100-year anniversary, and they wanted to make sure that the truth was told, that the real story was told. The fact that North Carolina didn’t -- they passed. They passed on passing the vote, right? Passing the amendment. They said absolutely not, and that white women were actively working against Black women getting the right to vote because the fear at the time is that Black women -- if all women were allowed to vote, the Black women would vote, and that meant that Black men would be put in positions of power. And white North Carolinians did not want that to happen. And so the theme of the Women's Theatre Festival 2021 season was family, and so they wanted an interracial family where both sets of women are  fighting for the right. But, you know, the day that the amendment was passed, only half of the women actually, really, truly had full access to it because fairly quickly Jim Crow laws were put in place that prevented Black people and Indigenous people and many other people from getting the right to vote. So at the center my play is -- it’s all women, but the center are two Black women, Adelaide and her best friend Florence, and they're part of the Negro Women’s Voter League. And they're fighting to achieve the right to vote, they know what's ahead of them is going to be hard. And then Adelaide's mother-in-law -- she’s married into a wealthy white family -- is adamant against this happening. She is adamant. She wants the right to vote for herself and others like her, and she calls Adelaide exceptional because she's highly educated and she's from a wealthy Black family, but she said -- the mother-in-law, Mabel, says that not all Black women are like you. Not all Black women are exceptional, and we still hear this language. We still hear this kind of language now. So that's what’s at the center of the play. It’s the, you know, the impact of racism on the feminist movement, on the right to vote. And so the play is an hour-long and the idea is that when we produce it or when we hold a reading of it, the second hour is conversation with voting rights activists and members of the community that are advocating for equal access to voting and also getting people register to vote, and maybe informing them on issues that maybe would matter to them. The scene from 19 is a monologue, so one person reading it. The character Adelaide, who is our main character, she's the leader of this League of Women Voters. She is speaking to the women. Her best friend, Florence, has gone to the post office to get the votes to find out what the votes are. So here she is. She’s trying to keep them together and keep them excited, but also be realistic about the fight that’s ahead. So here’s her monologue:


To redouble our efforts, they'll tell us that it's not becoming of a lady to scream and shout, but how else will they hear us? They'll tell us that it's not becoming of a lady to march and rally in the streets, but how else will they see us? They’ll even tell us that it’s not becoming of a lady to make demands and air our grievances, but how else will they know how to do right by us? And while some of them are trying politely to deter us, others will resort to violence as they have done so many times before. Of course, if the news is bad we were already geared up to fight. So we'll -- we'll carry on. 


And then Florence enters with the news. And the news is that North Carolina did not pass the right to vote, so it's not good news. 


Melody: Your work is public history. 


Jacqueline: The goal is to make what is unknown, what has been hidden, what has been erased visible, present, knowledgeable, so that we can no longer say Black votes weren’t a part of this. We can no longer have that narrative of omission. I just want people to know that we're here, that Black women are here, that Black people are here. We're worthy of consideration. We contain multitudes, you know? There's a lot to us, and to give us a space to be, to exist, unencumbered, and that's what I want my plays to do. 


Melody: Today’s reading corner is going to be a real treat for us because we have a theater professional who’s reading for us. Jacqueline, what piece did you select to read and tell us why you picked this selection. 


Jacqueline: So the play that I chose to read from is one that I wrote that's called So Goes We, and I wrote it as -- I received the Institute for African American Research Faculty Fellowship to write a play on immigration and very specifically about the impact of racism within the Immigration Movement. And I was wanting to look very specifically at the role of Black immigrants and Haitian immigrants because at the same time that the fight for DACA was happening, there was like one news article that came through that I saw on like, NPR about the current administration wanting to roll back the protective status of Haitian immigrants, and it horrified me given what happened to cause that, which was the earthquake and all the devastation afterwards, and that the current political and drought -- it’s just not a good time in Haiti right now. And the idea of those folks having to go back would just cause so much strain on the current economy and all the people that are there. And then the other thing I was finding out was that immigration lawyers -- oh my gosh. They were trying to catch up literally every day with the rules as they were changing every single day, and we saw very passionate hard-working immigration lawyers leave the field. So then you had fewer, fewer people to help protect the people who were actually trying to gain refugee status, which is it's very legal to attempt to gain refugee status. So in the play we have five characters. We have two immigration lawyers, we have an economics professor who's Haitian, and the other woman is at the center of the play, she is an educator, a journalist she's an activist. And then the wife of one of the education lawyers, Kazima, this is who we're going to hear from. She’s a geneticist, but also a social justice, passionate activist as well. And Kazima and her wife, they lost their baby. And so she's actually talking about that for the first time with colleagues, because she’s at a conference. Okay. So this is Kazima speaking. 


We lost our daughter. Lost isn't quite the right word. We didn't lose her. We knew exactly where she was the whole time. She was in Josie's womb. She was in the cab with us. We were in the cab on the way to the hospital. Our daughter died before she was born. It's called an intrapartum death. Such deaths are extremely rare and almost always inexplicable. What we know is that our child could not breathe. What we also know is that we did nothing wrong. Our OBGYN made sure we knew this above all else. Here's the thing though. I'm a geneticist, a community organizer, and a Black woman living in America, so I have some understanding of what could have led to the death of our child. If you are Black and have lived in this country, you'll have some idea as well. Even though it won't be diagnosed, I blame racism and intergenerational trauma which has been killing our people, our children for decades. We all know that racism impacts us in the most intimate and holistic of ways. It seeps into our dreams, our lungs, our blood, our cells. It becomes stress, cancer, asthma, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, bipolar disorder, maternal mortality, preterm births, and intrapartum death. Racism, the trauma of racism also alters our DNA, and intergenerational trauma mean we are not only dealing with the trauma of our own lives, but we are carrying the trauma of our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents, and our great-great grandparents. Some of us may not even know their names, but the lives they lived impact every aspect of our being. So, is it any wonder that my child, when faced with the possibility of entering this world, found it impossible to breathe and succumbed?


Melody: What does that feel like, to watch an audience respond or not respond or whatever to your work as that’s happening? 


Jacqueline: For me, theater is very much the exploration of the human condition. So, what is it to be alive? What is it literally to be alive on this planet? And then what are all the factors that may impact it? So I learn more about a play watching the audience watch it, than I do hearing them respond in the post-show discussion, so I enjoy those processes as well. What I love is when an audience leans in and leans forward, because there's great curiosity. I love when they cry. I love making people cry, because it opens up the heart, right? Like, there’s catharsis that happens, there's deep recognition of self that happens, there's -- empathy is formed and created. I love it when people laugh and when it’s a, you know, open-mouth, head thrown back laugh.  But what I love most of all is when there is complete silence and a sustained held silence, because they're holding their breath. And I've gotten to see that experience and that makes me cry. That's the thing that makes me cry because I've been able to tap into them true recognition. True recognition of what is the human condition and what it is that they themselves are literally trying to endure every single day. That's my favorite thing about being in the theater, you know?


Melody: Let me wrap up the show, Jacqueline, with your thoughts on how you reimagine the American South and what you hope your work does in that vision of the future. 


Jacqueline: Reimagining our story in a way that we're the ones telling it. It's allowing us to be and exist fully, freely, unencumbered, filled with joy, filled with fear, terror, angry, passionate love. I want our whole humanity and I want -- and that means something always, but it very much means something in particular in the South, given the legacy of slavery, given the legacy of Jim Crow, given the legacy of lynching in this country, that we as Black folks get to exist. We have a right to be here. We need no one's permission. That's what I want my plays to do. When asked this question, I often say that my plays -- I'm dismantling white supremacy one play at a time by placing Black women specifically at the center of the work, and that's it. I'm decentering whiteness. I'm not saying that it's not there, I'm not saying that we don't need white folks because we need you as far as the movement, come on in. I'm saying that we get to lead the conversation. We get to laugh, we get to fail, we get to be human. 


Melody: Jacqueline, it's always a pleasure working with you and especially talking with you today. Thank you for sharing your work. Thanks also to our listeners for tuning in. Join us for our next episode. For executive producer, Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery, associate producer Ellie Little, and sound editor Mark Meyer, and Melody Hunter-Pillion. Southern Futures is a podcast powered by the Southern Futures Initiative, a new collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences, UNC Libraries, the Center for the Study of the American South, and other units of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Southern Futures: Reimagine the American South.