Class Act: A Jewish professor founded a black vocational schools first art departments first art department

Even the title feels like a placeholder.

The Hampton Years, one of several new plays to emerge from Theater J’s laudable “Locally Grown” festival, looks at a fertile and unexplored period of U.S. art history: the World War II era, as experienced by several young African-American artists and their mentor. Viktor Lowenfeld was an Austrian Jewish professor of art education who fled to the U.S. with his wife when the Nazis came to power. He could’ve taught at Harvard, we learn in the matter-of-fact-opening scene, but a whiff of Nazi appeasement in the Ivy League steered him instead to Hampton Institute, an all-black vocational school, where he was invited to create its first art department. “Ve vill go to Virginia and be Southerners,” Lowenfeld’s wife Margaret observes upon agreeing to the move. “Our Johnny vill haff un accent!”

Hampton Institute—the ancestor of present-day Hampton University—was founded after the Civil War to teach freed slaves a wage-earning trade. The notion that would-be plumbers and seamstresses and stonemasons could afford to spend their college years learning to paint or sculpt was still a controversial one when Lowenfeld arrived some 70 years later. A few of Lowenfeld’s students, particularly the muralist John T. Biggers and the printmaker Samella Lewis, made good on his faith, contributing substantially to American art.

This, presumably, is because Biggers and Lewis and Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett were sensitive souls, both attuned and susceptible to the full spectrum of human emotion, even the unflattering ones. Indeed, Lewis, played here by Crashonda Edwards, is depicted as jealous of the attention lavished upon her shy classmate Biggers, whose talent Lowenfeld recognized immediately. But playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton’s hagiographic, oddly small-stakes drama is otherwise too gleaming with good intentions to allow these artists or their inspirational teacher their humanizing foibles. Although she’s clearly done her research into who these people were (and are; at 89, Lewis is with us still), what she’s written about them is unfailingly ennobling and admiring, which is why it ultimately fails.

That’s not fails-with-an-F, mind you. It’s more like a C, an honest and honorable effort that may yet be salvaged. The admission of some grit and pain would do this play a universe of good. In its present state it feels too much like it was commissioned by the Hampton University Alumni Association as the closing-night entertainment for parents weekend.

The piece is narrated, more or less, by Lowenfeld, reading passages from the book he’s writing about art and the development of consciousness in children. (It’s set between 1939 and 1945; Lowenfeld’s landmark text Creative and Mental Growth appeared in 1947.) There’s a tantalizing subplot—more of a sub-subplot, really—about Lowenfeld’s theory that African-Americans are categorically haptic rather than visually oriented, and thus more likely to excel as sculptors than as painters. This isn’t explored to a satisfying degree. A scene where Margaret reminds her husband—and fellow refugee—of the dangers of classifying aptitudes and behavioral characteristics based on race briefly promises to take the story into more troubling, interesting territory, but it’s quickly dismissed. Who wants to hear that this kindly professor might have struggled with racism, even the most innocent and correctable sort?

It’s surprising and a bit dispiriting that Lawton, a prolific and celebrated African-American writer who lives and works in D.C., has written a play with substantial roles for women and actors of color, but which gives the majority of its speech and stage time to the 40-something white guy. Sasha Olinick is instantly likeable in the role of Viktor Lowenfeld, easy to watch even though we’ve seen Robin Williams play this sort of character many times before. If this fuddyish paragon of academic rectitude has a flaw, it’s that he just loves his students too much! That affection, by the way, winds up dealing their morale a blow when Lowenfeld summons a prominent New York art critic to review their work before it’s ready.

And anyway, why don’t we get to see that work? The figures Biggers and Lewis are picturing in their minds as they paint and sculpt, respectively—an exhausted soldier on the front lines; a mother carrying her young child—are depicted by costumed actors behind a selectively lit scrim at the rear of the stage. But we get only fleeting glimpses of the work these people inspired.

Lawton gets in a few good observational jokes, like the way Hampton’s white president (the sturdy comic actor Colin Smith) can’t have a conversation with a student without reminding them to visit “Emancipation Oak.” More of this sort of thing would be most welcome.

What charge the production has comes from the strength of some key performances. Julian Elijah Martinez plays Biggers as a fragile sort, still discovering his gift. He seems haunted, his voice forever on the verge of dissipating into moans. As Charles White, an artist a few years older and warier of the institutionalized prejudice of the art world (and the rest of the world), David Lamont Wilson radiates an anger informed by intelligence.

This character offers another missed opportunity to acknowledge how art is a reaction to life’s endless complications: White’s marriage to Elizabeth Catlett (Lolita-Marie) seems solid as a rock here. In real life, they were married only a short while, and Catlett had a long artistic career of her own. Neither of those things are foreshadowed.

The play is set over a relatively long period: six years. Lawton or director Shirley Serotsky locate us in each new scene by having a character casually write the season and year on the blackboard, an elegant touch. The languorous span of time eventually makes you realize how little is happening to these people, even as calamitous, world-changing events happen around them. Characters discuss the news of the day, genocide and war—matters of literal life and widespread death. That makes the narrative specifics of this story—will the art department’s budget request be approved this year? Will Professor Lowenstein’s proposed museum exhibit of African art get funded?—seem frivolous. Personal is political, except for when it’s picayune.

It’s a curious constant, the way overeager attempts to venerate real lives through art seem inevitably to reduce them. Lawton knows this. In an interview with DC Theatre Scene last week, she spoke insightfully about how difficult it is to balance a writer’s love of subtlety with an audience’s need to understand what’s going on. Nothing she’s tried to do here is easy. Unfortunately, it isn’t very memorable, either.