“It’s dangerous what you’re teaching these students. Self-expression, much good that’s going to do them. They’re Negroes. The world will only give them so much.” This speech appears in a new work of historical fiction by local playwright Jacqueline Lawton. Set in the 1940s, “The Hampton Years” follows artist/educator Viktor Lowenfeld as he struggles to establish an art department, over administrative opposition, at Hampton Institute.
Lawton was originally drawn to the story, she says, by the intertwining dramas of Jews struggling to make a new life after the Holocaust and African American students struggling to make their way in the unwelcoming art world. “I knew I was writing about Margaret and Vicktor Lowenfeld rejecting Harvard and settling in Hampton, Virginia – such an isolated spot for Jews,” Lawton recalls. “And I knew I was writing about Viktor's stewarding the lives of these young artists,” muralist John Biggers (1924-2001) and sculptor Samella Sanders (now Lewis, b. 1924).
“What I didn't know was how much of the story was about fighting for the arts,” Lawton continues. “I began to realize how hard Viktor had to work – he had to develop a curriculum and hire teachers and do everything a department chair has to do, but he also had to fight, every day, to prove that the arts are necessary.”
Now, as a visiting professor in the midst of the University of the District of Columbia's reorganization, Lawton finds “life paralleling art.”
Theatre Arts at UDC has two faculty members: Assistant Professor Lennie Smith, whose position was recently terminated, and Lawton, whose year-to-year position is now more tenuous than usual. Theatre majors find this “heartbreaking” and a “big disappointment.” They fear losing faculty they counted on for advice, recommendations, and networking; some say their tie to UDC “is severed,” and one notes “they pulled the rug out from under us.”
Excerpted from "1940s Arts Drama Replays in 2013" by Virginia A. Spatz, originally published in East of the River Magazine. Click here to read the rest of the interview.
Virginia Avniel Spatz is a writer and activist in Washington, DC. She is feature reporter on the Education Town Hall and helps produce The Politics of Health, both on We Act Radio (WPWC 1480 AM), and often contributes to East of the River magazine. She blogs on Jewish topics at Song Every Day.
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!