Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine

All In His Head

The scripts of national award-winning playwright Jerome Hairston ('98) visit society's dark underbelly, a place he has never lived.

Story by Deona Landes Houff ~ Photos by Deedee Eicher Niarhos ('72) and Wayne Partlow ('78)

Jerome Hairston "I embrace my geekdom," says Jerome Hairston ('98) with mock pride. He's not talking about nerdiness. He's talking about his life as a JMU senior: almost never out late, in a far-off-campus apartment with his girlfriend of practically forever. Like someone older, calmer, settled.

By many accounts, he arrived this way at JMU in 1994. For a freshman, he was especially mature, perceptive and quietly self-possessed. He was confident enough about himself and his understanding of human nature to already have written two plays produced off-Broadway.

By the time he graduated in May, the JMU School of Theatre and Dance had staged several more of his scripts, including Carriage, which won Hairston the National Student Playwrighting Award at the Kennedy Center/ American College Theatre Festival. JMU staged the play at the Kennedy Center in April.

Hairston writes about people he admits he doesn't know: gangsters, prostitutes, ghetto kids, mystics, high school teachers who fool around with their students, people who are often likable only because they struggle. People not easy to be around. In Live from the Edge of Oblivion, a crackhead rants about not wanting her unborn child to live. In Cable Man, a young welfare mom desperately tries to keep a stranger from cutting off her only connection to other people. In L'eboueur Sleeps Tonight, a lowlife who has torched his crime boss's restaurant asks the friend hired to kill him to let him first deliver a fur coat to his mother. In Carriage, a grieving young man wakes the dead to make peace of what happened in the trailer park of his childhood.

Hairston's own background is not violent. The son of an African-American soldier and a Korean mother, he spent some of his childhood in a trailer park in Enid, Okla. His father died when he was 10, and he remains close to the mother who raised him and his two older brothers. In elementary school and junior high, his ambitions and expectations were low.

In 1990 he discovered playwrighting, and his life changed forever. By then his family had relocated to Yorktown. A foolish high school teacher told him he wasn't a good enough writer to study in the York County School of the Arts. He got in without her recommendation and within a year won a Young Playwrights competition in Richmond. The play, A Trip Down the Caramel Road, about a biracial child learning self-acceptance, is his most autobiographical. Since then, his life has been just about perfect.

His friends joke that he's been so fortunate he's due to get hit by a bus.

These are the same friends -- 1998 theater graduates James Pinkowski and Jeremy Beck -- who admit they wanted to hate Jerome Hairston when they met him. The Hairston hype had preceded his arrival at JMU, and many of his fellow students anticipated arrogance or at the very least a collision of egos. For the most part, they didn't find it. Privately with close friends, Hairston is capable of anger and criticism, but he is, as Beck says, "a good, solid person with his feet on the ground. He's mature. He's an adult. He didn't live the normal college life."

"Through his talent and personality he's endeared himself to people, and people really, really want to help him out," says Beck. "It's easy to be jealous of him because he has so much talent, but he's not the kind of person who sticks it in anybody's face. The amount of support he gets is phenomenal and he deserves it." Theater people from New York City and Richmond were encouraging Hairston before he was old enough to even apply to JMU.

But then there is Hairston's work: gritty, harsh, urban, laced with humor but not light. When Live from the Edge of Oblivion, a play set in a Washington, D.C., ghetto, was staged in New York, Hairston was 17.

Those who'd read the work expected to meet "a scary, angry little black thing that's out to kill all the whiteys in the world," he remembers with a guffaw.

Even his friend Jeremy Beck is taken aback by what Hairston gives the audience. "I don't care what you say, you can just look at the work and say ‘What's wrong with this dude? He is so screwed up.'"

Hairston, though, claims to have no secret past life that contributes to his work. The scenes come from his imagination.

"It's just being willing to let your imagination take you to these places, because sometime they're not such good places."

He can write in settings he's never seen, he says, because what he's really writing about are the people in those places. And human nature is the same wherever humans are. "Every individual has the same human capacity to evil and good.

Jerome Hairston "What's really at the center of all those monologues is something that's beyond the urban setting." For instance, he says, the crackhead mother monologue isn't about crack or the social situation. "It's about this sort of fatalistic sort of view of life. Most people can at least relate to the idea of not wanting to bring a child into a world that they think is wrong. That's what this monologue is, just put into the context" of urban life.

"Hopefully the plays are about investigating this human condition, and if I know nothing about the human condition, then I'm writing about nothing," Hairston says.

"Jerome has a great sensitivity to language and the way people use language," says JMU theater professor Roger Hall. "He has a great sensitivity to people's behavior. He's a careful observer of the way people behave."

And he can write. "He has an instinctive understanding of dramatic structure," says Hall, "the way a visual artist might have understanding of shapes and the way they fit together."

"I read three pages [of Carriage] and I knew I wanted to do this, to direct it," says theater professor Tom Arthur, who directed Carriage. "Jerome's language is beautiful, he a has a grasp of language that is uniquely his own ... with an African-American influence, and a lot of others too. He writes in this beautiful poetic language."

Hairston says the act of writing a play is about fun. "If you're not taking this sense of writing the play and taking the word play in a sense of playing around, fooling around, then it becomes this sense of a didactic, hard sort of thing to do. It paralyzes you, really, when you start to think ‘I'm writing a play. I'm going to be brilliant.' You're not having fun.

"There's something childlike about doing this and not taking yourself too seriously. Because basically what you're doing in essence is sitting and making up a story. You're making believe. That Hairston came to JMU -- a place so right for talented playwrights -- was another lucky happenstance. The university's School of Theatre and Dance includes a strong Experimental Theatre program, which allows students far more playwrighting, directing and acting experience than they receive even at larger universities.

And in theater professor Roger Hall (author of the book, Writing Your First Play), JMU has a leader in nurturing student writers. At most schools, actors start with a script. At JMU, actors and designers often work with the playwright, and script-writing affects the whole process. While it is rare for a student work to be produced on JMU's MainStage, it is hardly unheard of. Carriage was the seventh student play to hit the MainStage, another was by National Norman Lear Comedy Award winner Phoef Sutton ('81) who later became a writer and producer of TV's Cheers and a two-time Emmy-winner.

But none of that drew Hairston to JMU and the school's Honors Program, in which he enrolled. He came for love. He followed his girlfriend, 1997 graduate Cindy Fuss, here, and she will follow him to graduate school at Columbia University this fall. They say they intend to be together forever.

"Ever since I was 15, when I started writing, I have found myself around these wonderful people, which brought me to JMU. I can't imagine if I didn't meet James [Pinkowski] and Jeremy [Beck],who I have probably learned the most from, as far as personally and how I feel. It's strange when you start thinking,'What if they weren't here, what kind of experience would I have had?'"

At JMU Hairston found a place where he could throw around the word "craft" with people who understood the seriousness and yet the silliness of that term. A place that would put his work on stages large and small.

In Hairston, JMU found a writer both bright and prolific. "Anytime that you have really good students, it raises everyone else's level of accomplishment," says Hall. Take for example, Carriage, a script that was partially rewritten even after the world premiere at JMU. Students, designers, costumers, everyone was a part of that process. In the end came a show judged worthy of the Kennedy Center stage.

It is possible, says his friend Pinkowski, that Hairston is like the Titanic, with early hype and a sinking end. But not likely. Hair- ston is too grounded and too talented. Wherever and whatever Hairston writes, he will always remember and be grateful for JMU and the friends he made there.

People drop out of college when they don't make the connections, he once said. When they don't find friends who help them grow and have fun. "That's what college is really all about."

Hairston's Carriage is JMU's
Second National Kennedy Center Honor

JMU's April production of Carriage at the Kennedy Center marks the second time in six years that the School of Theatre and Dance has received national honors from the Kennedy Center / American College Theater Festival.

Carriage author and then-senior Jerome D. Hairston ('98) received the JMU honors this years as teh festival's National Student Playwrighting Award winner.

Hairston received $2,500 fromt the William Morris Agency; active membership in the Dramatists Guild; a contract for publication from Samuel French Inc. and roytalties received for production worldwide; and an all-expenses paid nine-day fellowship to the Sundance Theater Lab in Utah. The play was originally commissioned by the Joseph Papp Theater / New York Shakespeare Festival.

Carriage world-premiered at JMU in November 1997 under the direction of theater professor Thomas H. Arthur. It was one of six national KC/ACTF award finalists chosen from a field of approximately 900 entrants. In the tradition of the American "memory play," Carriage is about coming to terms with a difficult past. The major character, Melvin, re-lives his childhood experiences in a trailer park, where he lived with his mother and sister.

In 1992, JMU received national honors from the KC/ACTF for its production of Sizwe Bansi is Dead by South African playwrights Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. JMU's Kennedy Center performance of the play, about oppression of blacks in South Africa's 'Grand Apartheid' of 1972, coincided with the waning, but still violent, years of apartheid. South African Ian Steadman, who directed the play at JMU as a visiting professor in 1991, returned to the United States for the Kennedy Center performance.

The Sizwe Bansi cast featured Brian Hollingsworth of Alexandria, Erick Pinnick ('91) of Ellicott City, Md., and Derome Smith ('92) of Midlothian. Jennifer Gray was stage manager.

The Carriage cast featured Mikey Courtney of Springfield; Charity Henson ('98) of Stafford; Siobhan O'Malley of Kingston, R.I.; Tangelia Rouse ('98) of Alexandria; Rodney Scott of Lynchburg; and Dave Dalton ('98) of Roanoke. James Pinkowski ('98) of Fairfax Station was assistant director. Katie Bane of Roanoke was stage manager.

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