Actor Jayme Lawson graduated from the famed Juilliard School a little over a year ago — and she's already accumulated some impressive credits.
Lawson appeared in an acclaimed revival of "For Colored Girls" by Ntozake Shange as the Lady in Red at the New York Public Theater. Now, Lawson stars in the new film "Farewell Amor," which opens Friday in theaters and on demand.
She plays Sylvia, a young woman from Angola who comes to New York with her mother to be reunited with her father. The family has been separated for 17 years by the Angolan Civil War. Lawson says she relates to Sylvia’s complex relationship with her father.
“This idea of this father who hasn't abandoned you because he's gone on to provide a better life and make way for you and your mother,” she says, “and yet it feels like you've been abandoned by this man.”
At age 17, Sylvia fights to express herself through her art: dance. The audience sees Sylvia come alive when she’s dancing and speaking through her body, Lawson says.
“I can't always articulate myself best if it's not through performance, if it's not through art, whether that's movement or language or whatever have you,” she says. “Art gives me an excuse to be myself freely under the pretense of somebody else.”
Black people experience “pure liberation” through dancing, she says.
Sylvia's mother doesn't really approve of her dancing. Throughout Sylvia’s life, she believes no one will ever understand her unique desire to dance.
But when her father tells her that she inherited her passion from her parents, Sylvia gives herself permission to explore dancing and finds a “newfound sense of belonging,” Lawson says.
"Farewell Amor" is based on the life of writer and director Ekwa Msangi. Lawson says she felt a responsibility to honor Msangi’s experience.
“Given the climate that we're in and the way in which the immigrant experience has been talked about, the rhetoric that's been used, it was important to give back the humanity to immigrants,” she says.
One of the first plays Lawson ever read was “For Colored Girls.” Playwright Ntozake Shange gave a voice to Lawson’s experiences, though she didn’t fully understand the play at the young age of 13.
When the play debuted in 1976, many audiences were seeing and hearing Black women's struggles against sexism and racism for the first time. Sitting around a table reading through the script with her Black castmates, Lawson found the play still resonates to a frightening extent today.
“You want it to be something that is dated. You want it to feel like something that came out of the ‘70s,” she says. ”And it just doesn't.”
During one performance, the audience was reserved for only Black and Brown women. Looking at an audience of faces that look like her and her family, Lawson says she felt seen and understood vulnerability as an actor for the first time.
“It is like having church,” she says. “It is a whole different kind of baptism that's happening on that stage.”
Next, Lawson will tackle the role of mayoral candidate Bella in “The Batman” alongside Robert Pattinson. Though she can’t say much about the project, Lawson says working on the film has been a pleasure.
“Truly everything that I've gotten to work on so far since graduating has just been an amazing experience,” she says. “It's been such a blessing to go into environments in which I feel safe and comfortable — even though I'm so new — and watch everybody work.”
This segment aired on December 9, 2020.
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