Meet playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton
The Inferior Sex by Jacqueline E. Lawton is a smart, funny new work that follows the staff of a 1970s women’s magazine for “feminists who love fashion.” We spoke with Jacqueline about her
work as a playwright, her relationship with director Tatyana-Marie Carlo, and why this show is so timely in 2023:
Laura Weick: It’s so nice to meet you, Jacqueline! This is your first time working with us at Trinity
Rep, so can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got involved in theater?
Jacqueline E. Lawton: I fell in love with theater very, very young. My mother loved MGM musicals from the 1940s and 50s, so I grew up watching those and fell in love with the magic of theater. And I was raised in a little town in East Texas called Tennessee Colony, and there would be touring Theater for Young Audiences groups. I saw a production of Jack and the Beanstalk, and I loved the idea of a fairy tale becoming a play. It quickly became what I wanted to do. I began writing little plays for my sisters to act out and short stories about adventures our stuffed animals would have.
I went to the University of Texas at Austin for undergrad, where I studied screenwriting, playwriting, and acting. I ended up spending so much of my time in the theater department because there was such a unique passion and energy there. Then I went right into grad school for my MFA in playwriting. I was also a Michener fellow, so I got to travel to Europe during the summer and staged one of my plays in Australia.
After graduating, I moved from Austin to Baltimore, and then DC, where there’s a really vibrant theater community, for about eight years. I was then invited to teach at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2015, and I’ve been living there since.
LW: Can you tell us a bit about your previous work?
JEL: I love history plays. I love telling stories of who we were before to help us understand who we are now, and who we could be. There is another play of mine called Anna K set in 1920s Paris. Anna is a character study of Josephine Baker, so the play examines what it was like for Black artists in Europe at that time. And another character is a Black U.S. soldier, and he’s now living in Paris, and that character shows what it was like for Black people who left the United States to live in another country.
Another play of mine is Behold, A Negress, which is set in 1800s Paris and about the relationship between a white painter and her Black muse. It looks at Black womanhood, identity, and how Black women can be used and commodified and sexualized without any agency. And there’s also The Devil’s Sweet Water, which is an adaptation of Faust set post-9/11. The main character makes a deal with the devil not for power or magic, but for her to find love.
LW: The Inferior Sex is another play you wrote that’s set in the past – how did the concept come to be?
JEL: I started working on this play at a time when I was only writing all-women plays, and this was
around 2018. I was thinking about 2016 – how loud women got in 2016, the Women’s March, and how the Women’s March fell apart because of its lack of intersectionality. I was starting to look back in time at the other moments when intersectionality didn’t show up, when race was not considered as an important contributing factor to inequality.
I think 1972 was such a critical time since that was when Title Nine passed, Roe v. Wade was being decided, and the Equal Rights Amendment was trying to get passed. So you have these critical civil actions about gender equality going on, but it was also a time in the feminist movement where the idea of women of color moving forward was seen as a hindrance by some white women. There was – and still is – a real problem in that women of color were not allowed to move forward at the same time as white women.
I was also interested in what was happening with Teen Vogue at the time, because Teen Vogue during that time period got very political very quickly. This magazine for young adults about fashion and beauty got political fast and loud basically overnight, and very specifically with a progressive lens. I wondered what it was like behind the scenes. What were the conversations that were happening in women’s magazines in the 1970s? How far were these women willing to go into politics? I was imagining a group of women coming together to say “This is what feminism means to us: we love fashion, we love cooking, maybe we want to get married, maybe we like boys, or girls, but we want to define feminism for ourselves.” And so that’s what that’s how the play came into existence.
LW: A lot has changed since 2018 politically, especially regarding women’s rights. Have current events impacted your interpretation of the play at all?
JEL: Yes! The most obvious one is that we are now suddenly in a time period where women do not have full access to reproductive health care. When I first wrote this play, Roe v. Wade was the law of the land; it no longer is. In the play, the characters know that Roe v. Wade is going to be heard by the court soon and are anxious about it, but we don’t see them see results of that on stage. Now that we once again don’t have full access to reproductive health, the conversations women are having about that now have completely changed since the stakes are greater.
I’m thinking too about how women are not paid the same as men in similar positions. And then
when you break down how race impacts gender equality and pay, it’s an even wider gap and even more devastating. This feels especially relevant in this moment when we’re in an economic crisis with inflation, all while the women’s movement continues to struggle with the intersectionality of race.
Finally, there’s voting rights. Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman to run for president in a major party primary, yet 50 years later we’ve still never had a female president. It’s so striking to me that this is a woman who understood that there were women who didn’t want her to run, there were Black folks who didn’t want her to run, yet she still ran because she had something to stand for. She knew that even the act of running would mean so much to so many people that were overlooked or completely marginalized. So, I think about where we are right now as a country, as each of us has a civic duty to pay more attention to what’s happening. We can’t just wait every four years to suddenly get into politics: we have to pay attention on the local level, the state level, the school board level. We have to get civically involved and engaged to understand who are the people in positions of power, who are making decisions on our behalf, who were acting or not acting in our favor who are acting actively against us. I feel like Shirley Chisholm was really loud about that, and was really encouraging people to speak up.
I feel like those three particular things feel very loud now. They definitely were before 2022, but now I’m feeling like this play gets even more relevant each day, because we can’t come out of what we’ve been through as a nation, as a world, over the past three years as if nothing changed.We’ve all seen the racial reckoning that has happened, whether it’s in the Black community or the anti-Asian hate that’s occurred or the abject racism in the immigration movement. We can’t have lost all we’ve lost and not move differently together to create new systems that are more equitable.
LW: Resident company member Tatyana-Marie Carlo is going to direct this show. I’ve heard you two have worked together before?
JEL: Tatyana’s just amazing. We actually met because of COVID. She was coming to direct a play at UNC for our undergraduate department, but of course, we had to shift to online and pick a different play. That’s when she read The Inferior Sex and she fell in love with it. Our first project together was a virtual reading of The Inferior Sex. And when we got to meet it was love at first sight! I told her I hoped this would be the first of many, many opportunities of working together. Then she directed the world premiere of Behold, a Negress at Everyman Theater in Baltimore. I sent her a text saying “Hey, remember when I said I wanted to work with you again? Here’s that opportunity.” And Tatyana did such a beautiful job on that production.
As a director, Tatyana not only builds beautiful worlds on stage, but also, she builds community. She’s very mindful of everyone who has their hands on the show, whether the production team, the design team, or the artists. She just brings so much care and intentionality in the room. It’s really wonderful that she recommended this play to Curt Columbus, and we get to bring it to life at Trinity Rep.
LW: The Inferior Sex was also part of the three new play development workshops Trinity Rep held over the summer. What was that experience like?
JEL: It was really lovely! My favorite part about being a playwright is listening to cast members talk about the world of play, and talk about it from their point of view as well as the point of view of their character. It’s really fun listening to those conversations happening, and it’s great to dig into the distinct personalities of each of the nine characters in the play, developing more layers to them. As a playwright, you want to develop this emotional landscape and ask how these characters change by the end of the play, and what that looks like on stage. It was a gift of time with really smart-thinking actors to hone in these nuances, and to clarify plot points and dialogue.
We were all on Zoom, but it still felt like we were all together. One of the positive things that has come out of COVID is that I’ve been able to work with so many different people from all around the world. Zoom creates so many more opportunities for access and engagement. That said, I am looking forward to coming to Providence this spring!
LW: Last question: What are you most looking forward to with staging this show at Trinity Rep?
JEL: I’m most excited about is being in the room with you all. This will be my first time in Providence. I think the first week of rehearsal is always so much fun since we’re laying down the groundwork and building the ensemble. I can’t wait to meet the cast in person as well as the designers. We have some of the best people in the industry right now working on this show. And I can’t wait for you to see what they’re going to do.
The Inferior Sex runs at Trinity Rep in the Dowling Theater March 16 – April 16. Best seats and prices