Playwright and Performer
• JLP Productions, owner
• DC Black Theatre Festival, committee member
Lynchburg Living Editor Shelley Basinger: Jennifer, you have a very long history in the area’s theater community—particularly writing your own original plays. When did you first develop a love for the stage?
Jennifer Petticolas: I worked behind the scenes doing set design and building sets while attending Livingstone College
in Salisbury, North Carolina. When I declared my English major, my dean said, “Are you sure you don’t want to do theater?”
He saw something in me then that I didn’t see. But I chose English because I have always enjoyed writing and especially creative writing. That love started at Dunbar High School in Lynchburg, with Mrs. Jordan and Mr. Watson.
SB: Where did life take you with that English degree?
JP: After finishing college, I got a teaching job at a junior high school in Baltimore.
I had been teaching three or four years when the faculty wanted to do a play about the history of our country and incorporate some dance into it, so I volunteered to write it. That was the first play that I wrote, and it really piqued my interest.
SB: When did you return to Lynchburg? And did you get involved in theater right away?
JP: I came back to Lynchburg in 1976. I remember my oldest daughter was trying out to be in Annie and told me, “Mom, I want to be Annie.” I told her I didn’t know if they would cast her in that role, and she ended up being casted as one of the orphans. She said, “Well, if I can’t be Annie, I’m going to be the best dancing orphan up there.” I thought if she can do it, I can do it too! Later on, I was cast in For Colored Girls and started getting involved with the Fine Arts Center (now Academy Center of the Arts).
SB: Since then, you’ve written numerous plays that have gotten acclaim both locally and beyond. What are some of your favorites?
JP: One piece that I was most proud of focused on suicide awareness. A friend, Kim Kittrell, came to me and told me about how her daughter, a former E.C. Glass student, had committed suicide at college. She wanted to get the message out that there is help for people who are struggling with depression. I did an interview with Kim, which was a very difficult process. She talked about her daughter being a dancer and how her daughter always felt like every woman should have a little black dress. I titled the play that, Little Black Dress, to symbolize a sophisticated woman and also, depression. I also got help from the medical community to make sure we were giving out the right message. This play has been performed in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. The Campbell County Branch of the NAACP presented us with an award for the play.
Another favorite is Sunday’s Child, a play I wrote for Johnson Medical Center about the life of Dr. Robert Walter Johnson.
I did a lot of research for that one, including interviewing about 30 or 40 people on the telephone and visiting his grandson’s house in Maryland.
SB: You also have focused on black history through the years. Most recently, “People Died: The Struggle for African American Voting Rights” was shown at the Lynchburg Museum.
JP: That was a little different than a play, six short monologues highlighting six real-life individuals who died fighting for African American voting rights in the ’60s. After we did that Lynchburg City Council Member Sterling Wilder came to me and said, “That lit a fire under me.” It just feels good to know that you are making a difference, causing people to think differently. That has been my whole purpose.
SB: Could we see anything new from you in the coming year?
JP: Suga is a play I started working on a few years ago. It’s about a husband and wife—the husband has diabetes and high blood pressure—and how his health affects their sex life. I’ve thought about taking that off the shelf. When George Floyd was killed, I started working on a piece about Floyd and Emmett Till.
It feels like I’m always working on something!
SB: Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring playwrights?
JP: Just keep pushing. You have a story in you, I think we all have stories in us. Write those stories. If you need help, reach out.
Get in Touch:
Email Jennifer at email@example.com
or send her a message on Facebook.