By Tyler West
Jacob Lawrence: Panel 1
Courtesy of The Phillips Collection
It’s not often that a fine arts museum commissions plays to complement its collection, but that’s just what The Phillips Collection has in mind for its fall exhibition, People on the Move: Beauty and Struggle in Jacob Lawrence’s "Migration Series." This special showing will display 60 scenes of early 20th-century African American migration painted by Jacob Lawrence, a prominent African American folk artist. In a special twist, however, the museum has commissioned five well-known D.C. playwrights to craft ten-minute, one-act readings that correspond to the five themes found in the series: beauty and struggle, transitions and transformations, family ties and community building, separation and dislocation, and tension and conflict. According to Curator Elsa Smithgall, the role of the spoken word is crucial in this exhibition because it “makes the artwork come alive in a way that activates and animates what one sees visually.”
The acts will be written by: Jacqueline E. Lawton, who was named one of 30 of America’s leading Black playwrights by Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute ; Norman Allen, writer of In The Garden and recipient of the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play; Tearrance Chisholm, whose plays include Bhavi the Avenger (Convergence Theatre), and In Sweet Remembrance (Endstation Theatre Company); Annalisa Dias, Co-Founder of the D.C. Coalition for Theatre & Social Justice; and Laura Shamas, writer of Picnic at Hanging Rock, Portrait of a Nude, and Amelia Lives. The five plays will be read by actors Nora Achrati, Jeff Allin, Desmond Bing, James Johnson, Natalie Graves Tucker, and Craig Wallace.
It is important to remember that this exhibition will not only be a novel experience for viewers and listeners, but also for the playwrights themselves. Laura Shamas calls her work at The Phillips Collection “a dream come true,” explaining that collaborating with other playwrights and museum professionals is a tremendous artistic growing experience. Likewise, Annalisa Dias says that she finds writing for People on the Move to be both challenging and rewarding. She says that she’s had to give intense consideration to the message underlying Lawrence’s paintings: “the largely unseen migration of bodies currently going on in our country: a coerced migration of black and brown bodies into prison cells.”
With such a range contributors and a mix of artistic media, one may question whether the exhibition can ultimately convey a singular, thematic message. Smithgall provides an answer: “The playwrights we worked with responded to Jacob Lawrence’s "Migration Series" in thoughtful, meaningful ways, each one bringing their own perspective to bear on a theme that touches each and every one of us.” All signs point to an enlightening, engaging celebration of Lawrence’s work en mélange.