Booker T, W.E.B, Hampton, and UDC

1940s Arts Drama Replays in 2013

UDC students prepare to testify and protest at the DC Council's March 12 performance oversight hearing.

“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.” 

“Living My Play”

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.” 

UDC spokesperson John Butler explains that 21 majors were eliminated through a “thoughtful process” ratified by the Faculty Senate. “We simply could not guarantee quality [in every program] with the resources we have.” Many discontinued majors, including theatre arts, were to be “reconstituted in some other form, such as minors, certificate programs, and/or concentrations.” Observers inside and outside the university agree that a minor in theatre arts can be an important complement to many major programs and career paths. There is disagreement, however, about what happened to the promised minor (see sidebar) and whether theatre arts at UDC has a future.

The university struggles with “being broad and being targeted,” Butler adds. Program reorganizations were based on cost, current and potential demand, and quality. We have to ask, Butler adds: Can a program help students become “proficient and expert ... so they can work in that field?”  

Recent Faculty Senate minutes put it this way: UDC is in a “21st century version of the Booker T. Washington/W.E.B. DuBois struggle. [The District has] no concern for development of the mind, to live as a constructive citizen. [We're] getting a lot of pressure to move away from broad education and just train for jobs.” And so Lawton is struggling to support disheartened students in an environment that appears to devalue their work, while she battles to keep arts education accessible at the only institution available to many students. In other words, she exclaims, “I'm living my play!”

One Big – Unfunded – Family

Denise Hall, of Ward 7, once had a job in security at Washington Hospital Center and saw no point in a college degree. Now she's just a few credits away from a bachelor's degree in theatre arts and preparing for graduate school. On this rainy March morning she is gathering with fellow students to protest the disintegration of the program which has meant so much to her.  

“My mother was studying social work at UDC,” Hall recalls. “I'd ask her, Why do you stay in this, sun up to sundown? She said, Go and you'll see.” Hall pauses to explain that her mother completed a bachelor's degree in 2005, not long before being diagnosed with cancer, which sadly proved terminal. “She wanted me to get an education, so I went to UDC....At first I was undecided what to study. But I got the opportunity to be in a performance, and I found this is where I need to be.”

“Now, other people who come after me will not get the experience I had,” Hall adds. “Youth are engaged through entertainment of all kinds. Having this department can help put youth on the right path....UDC is affordable, accredited, accessible...Our city needs this.” 

Many students note the importance of an affordable education but add that their program did not have sufficient resources. Benita Frazier adds, “as for abolishing the program, they don't fund it anyway.” Several students stress the rich theatre resources of the District itself, however. “They offered us grand opportunities,” says senior Margaret Smith, while senior Dionne Hunte notes that Lawton helped her find work through the Theater Alliance. “We studied under very experienced and connected teachers.”

“The group is one big family,” says Lolita Rushing, a junior who hopes to attend graduate school and pursue acting, directing, and playwriting. “For them to let [faculty] go – it just doesn't feel right anymore....They're allowing us to finish out. But we don't know who's gonna advise us.” Shyia Simmons is also concerned about her future and that of the program. “Now we don't know who will be teaching us in the fall....I feel like they just don't care about the theatre program. But I've come way too far to go back now.” 

“The District needs a theatre program where students of limited resources can study,” says Lawton, a graduate of the University of Texas. “Without a public institution I couldn't have afforded my studies.” 

After a schedule of staged reading and workshops around the country, “The Hampton Years” premieres in June at Theatre J here in the District. A DC Council hearing on UDC's performance and budget is scheduled for April 23.


UDC's Theatre Program in Limbo

In late 2010 the UDC faculty senate approved discontinuation of 21 programs. The Trustees' ratification reads: “Whereas many of the programs listed for termination will be reconstituted in some other form, such as minors, certificate programs, and/or concentrations.” Theatre Arts was to reorganize from a major program to a minor. 

New majors in theater are no longer accepted, but UDC promised to “teach out” current majors – juniors and seniors – so they can graduate. The university takes this seriously, according to Chief Operating Officer Rachel Petty. She did suggest, however, in a March 22 phone interview that students might be “better served” by taking courses through the DC-area university consortium. 

The minor, meanwhile, is not in place. Petty explains that Theatre Arts “has not yet presented a plan,” although the UDC website offers a detailed description of a minor. Faculty Senate minutes indicate that a general proposal on “Minors and Concentrations” – a necessary first step to putting such programs in place – was submitted to the provost over a year ago. As of press time the provost had not responded.

Waiting for the Dice to Roll

Assistant Professor Lennie Smith's position terminates at the end of this school year. Commitments to visiting professors, such as Jacqueline Lawton, are not made until late summer. At that point, Petty says, “We put theatre in with all other needs.” 

Without faculty, who will oversee the minor? “Terminating a faculty position doesn't mean we won't have faculty next year,” Petty responds. A visiting professorship saves the university money on benefits, while “an adjunct saves more.” “We can't keep full-time faculty for a small number of students,” continues Petty. “Students haven't registered yet, and we don't know demand.” Meanwhile Lawton told the DC Council that new students are discouraged, or even prevented, from taking theatre courses. The program has had no new students in its courses since 2011. Still, the university “is committed to the minor,” Petty reiterates, and has “the intention” to offer it. 

Only for the Wealthy?

“I had one Wall Street dad accuse me of training his child to be a starving actor,” recalls Gail Stewart Beach, chair and professor of drama at Catholic University. “So I asked him if he would hire someone skilled in collaboration and creative thinking, someone who knew about deadlines and could think on his feet....Hiring managers tell me that they can teach particulars of a business but cannot teach these skills.” In addition, Beach says, arts students may be better prepared in a tough economy than those planning less flexible careers. “Part of what my students already know is that they will always have to be on top of their own work.”

Still, Beach says, the idea that arts are for the wealthy is a hard one to shake – on the individual career level and on the cultural level. But DC is far ahead of other locations on both counts, she believes: DC is active in Fringe Theater and has a variety of other low-cost productions. There are free dress rehearsals, even for the opera, and students get free and reduced-price tickets. On the employment front DC is the second most active theatre market, behind New York City. Children's and other niche offerings are abundant; area rehearsals are often at night, “so that people can keep their day jobs,” and many employers are accustomed to giving vacation days when “tech” conflicts with a regular work schedule. 

“Theatre is such a part of life here,” Beach concludes. “A lot of theatres want to give back [through internships and jobs, e.g.], and the community is very welcoming to students.”