Campus News

Diversifying the theater

Jacqueline Lawton’s work as a playwright and equity, inclusion and diversity coordinator has led to a greater range of programming by students in Carolina’s Kenan Theatre Company.

photo courtesy of Jacqueline Lawton
Image courtesy of Jacqueline Lawton.

Life in Tennessee Colony, a small unincorporated farming community in East Texas, didn’t hold a lot of promise for a girl with big dreams. Jacqueline Lawton remembers a place with more cows and horses than people and a beautiful open sky country with lots of trees and fields. But there was a less idyllic version, too. This version had more state prisons than schools and a KKK meeting house just a mile away from her home. As the only Black girl in her classes — one who was self-admittedly loud, bold, ambitious and fiercely independent — Jacqueline felt that she belonged to her family, but not to her community, and the only way out was college.

Once at the University of Texas at Austin, the theater major discovered that there weren’t many great roles for actors of color, so she set out to learn how to write plays. Creating this opportunity for herself and others that look like her set into motion a career as an acclaimed playwright, dramaturg and professor who creates works that address racism, marginalization, equity and diversity. As associate professor of playwriting, play analysis, theater for social change and dramaturgy, Lawton has been lauded for her work as the Theatre Communications Group’s Equity, Inclusion and Diversity coordinator and for her focus on theater for social change to animate students’ awareness of the multifaceted society we inhabit and the intersectional nature of our lives.

“The issue of racial and gender diversity is bigger than the entity of theater or academia, but what better place to address it than on the stage?” she asks. “What other art form offers an intimate portrayal of the strange, beautiful, curious, brave and vulnerable human experience?”

Indeed, her theatrical works center on topics such as the life of the pioneering African-American female journalist Marvel Cooke (“Edges of Time”), the impact of the 19th Amendment on Black women a century ago and today (“XIX”) and many more socially relevant productions. She facilitates the annual monologue-writing workshop as part of the Me Too Monologues and is a committee member, choosing plays by women and people of color to be read in a low-key format once a month, which leads to a greater diversity of material being programmed by students involved in Carolina’s Kenan Theatre Company.

Growing up, what was the message you received from your family regarding higher education?

My parents placed a significant focus on education. Our studies and academic pursuits were always a priority. Whenever my brother, sister or I said that we were bored, our mom would tell us to read the dictionary. We had encyclopedias and Black history books. We had an anthology of Shakespeare and plays by Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams and Lorraine Hansberry on our bookshelves. We watched the educational programming on PBS, and we read a lot. I knew that college was my only way out and up in terms of social mobility.

How did your lens of diversity and inclusion form?

Listen, I grew up poor and Black in East Texas. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of social and economic disparity. My sense of fighting for justice began as a sense of wanting things to be fair. I wanted to fully participate in my life. I wanted to travel and see the world being promised in television shows and films about life. Even though those lives were white, I felt that I had every right to participate, too. And I wasn’t going to wait to be invited.

How did you apply your desire to be included at the proverbial table?

[When I started writing plays,] I learned how to write grants and be a producer so that I could pay theater artists who worked with me on new play development workshops. In 2012, I was nominated to be a Young Leader of Color at the Theatre Communications Group National Conference. TCG is a nonprofit service organization for regional theaters. That was a career-defining moment for me. I suddenly had a national platform. As soon as I got home from the conference, I interviewed all of the amazing people I met there and asked them about the diversity, inclusion and equity initiatives in their communities. This took on a life of its own, and I was invited to blog for TCG’s next three conferences and forums. It was extraordinary to be in conversation with so many artists, arts administrators, and arts leaders.

You earned your MFA in playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where you were a James A. Michener Fellow. Did you always know that playwriting would be your destiny?

I’ve considered myself a writer since I was about 8 years old when I started writing plays, poems and short stories to entertain my sister and to escape a sense of loneliness. I wrote short stories for her about our stuffed animals and all the adventures they had while we were at school. My mother is an avid MGM musical buff, and I quickly became hooked, learning about theater and show business from Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. We didn’t dress up for Halloween; instead, part of our Thanksgiving tradition was to make costumes and sing made-up songs and act out made-up plays. In third grade, I wrote a haunted house story about my teacher, Mrs. Jordan, and her two daughters. She loved it so much, she asked me to read it aloud in class. I begged her not to make me do it. I was painfully shy and terrified to speak in public. I resisted with every fiber of my being but ultimately did as instructed. When I finished, the class applauded so loudly! It was a room full of smiles, and it felt amazing! That was one of the early experiences that changed my life.

In junior high and high school, I continued to write and found opportunities to perform. In college and graduate school, I studied theater, playwriting, solo performance, performance studies and screenwriting. I was also a part of the Austin Project, a writing group comprised of women artists, activists and scholars, led by Sharon Bridgforth and Omi Olomo Osun. It was a deeply profound and lasting experience that taught me how theater could be a powerful tool for social justice.

What challenges did you face as a woman in this field … and more specifically, as a Black woman?

Onstage, we can unfold the various ways in which we live and die; of how we behave towards one another in love and hate; of the immediate and residual impact of our decisions; of the damaging and devastating consequences of our neglect; and the joy and glory of our good deeds. As a Black ciswoman, I carry the history, anguish, suffering, accomplishments and success of my people on my skin. I’m aware that I’m writing in a tradition of a people who were marginalized, but the only responsibility I owe to anyone is to tell the truth; my truth. The human story isn’t one of perfection. It is one of great struggle. If we can tell that story beautifully and honestly, then we have done our jobs as artists.

Did you have mentors? If so, how did they guide you?

Amparo Garcia-Crow, my first playwriting teacher, showed me that I could be an artist, encouraged me to get an MFA in playwriting and taught me how to write in my dreams; Omo Olomo Osun (Joni Jones) taught me how to use theater as a tool for social justice. She also introduced me to performance ethnology, which is how I learned how to write interesting and fully evolved people onstage; Jill Dolan taught me dramatic criticism and how to be a feminist. She also taught me that there is enormous strength in vulnerability; Kathy A. Perkins, my dear friend and colleague, has taught me that making time for yourself and your friends and gathering in community is essential to rejuvenating your energy and spirit. Kathryn Hunter-Williams, also a dear friend and colleague, has reminded me that centering kindness and generosity are vital to sustainability.

You have an impressive CV, rich with work as a dramaturg and research consultant with theaters across the country. You’ve also taught classes on acting, directing, dramaturgy, movement, playwriting, Shakespeare and solo performance in numerous places. How did you make that leap from writing/directing, etc., to teaching, specifically higher education?

I do not know that it was much of a leap, but it was an absolute necessity for survival! I worked as a freelance theater artist for most of my time in D.C. In addition to my training at UT Austin, I took several professional development workshops at the Kennedy Center that taught me how to incorporate theater into the classroom. I knew that I wanted to teach in higher education because I wanted to continue working professionally as a theater artist.

What was the campus climate like when you came to Carolina in 2015 … and how did you navigate it?

I am not sure. I spent a lot of time traveling that first year. I was in rehearsal for two plays. Later, issues around renaming buildings, removing the Confederate statues, and sexual assault and violence became prominent issues that the University had to address. I focused on supporting my students and giving them the tools that they needed to address these issues with their peers. I discussed issues with my colleagues, and we made statements to support equity and inclusion.

What issues of diversity, equity and inclusion did you identify as needing attention in the department of dramatic art and/or PlayMakers Repertory Company, and how did you address them?

Like many departments at predominantly white institutions, our department is not as racially/ethnically diverse as it should be to meet the needs of the students and to be as inclusive as we want to be. I’ve been a part of the Access, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committee, which meets regularly to address these issues in our curriculum, programming, policies and procedures. There is not much we can do in terms of hiring more staff and faculty [due to the] hiring freeze, but we have started to shift our curriculum away from a white-centered focus. This is especially true in literary-based classes.

Can you give some examples of how you convey diversity, equity and inclusion in your teaching?

My teaching style is like my facilitation style. In addition to being a playwright, dramaturg, producer and educator, I am also a racial equity facilitator. My approach to this work is anti-racist, anti-bigoted and intersectional. My work examines the ways that racism, bigotry, misogyny, and ableism impact policy, practices and pedagogy. My work is centered on the individual, whether I am teaching or guiding an organization through a training because who you are as an individual and how you operate in this world is core to understanding the role you play in our collective liberation. In class, we have assigned readings, listenings and viewings and we engage in small and large interactive group discussions, self-reflective writing exercises, and playwriting for in-depth dialogue, continuous learning and ongoing engagement. Together, we build a knowledge base, engage in active, constructive dialogue and discover how each of us can act as a social justice change agent.

March was Women’s History Month, and there was a special reading of your play, “XIX,” about the intersection of race and the 19th Amendment. How do you see issues affecting Black women a century ago resonating with us now?

In 1920, while many in North Carolina favored granting women the right to vote, there was fear the 19th Amendment would open the doors to greater rights for the state’s Black citizens. In my play, “XIX,” I’m telling the story of how women were fighting for the right to vote and racial equality. Women in this country still don’t have the right to earn as much as a man for the same job. Transgender and gender-nonconforming folx [sic] are still fighting for representations and rights. We’re 100 years on, and there is still a lot of work to do.

Read more profiles by the Office for Diversity and Inclusion.