The world premiere The Hampton Years, lovingly mounted at Theater J, contains important nuggets of the country’s past without feeling pedantic or weighed down by its own history.
Playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton’s usual raw edged style is toned down here as she concentrates on the characters and brings the relationship between the artists into focus. The story centers on the role of an Austrian philosophy professor, Viktor Lowenfeld who escaped the jaws of German occupation by migrating to America, where he turned down a position at Harvard because they welcomed Nazi representatives on campus. After accepting an offer to teach at The Hampton Institute, a predominantly black school in the southern Virginia, he discovered he could make more of a difference by focusing on his side interest in art, and built up a department, mentoring his most promising art students. The story raises interesting questions about motives when teachers push their students to achieve against the odds to break through societal barriers—what was Lowenfeld trying to prove? Why? And at whose mental and emotional expense?
Julian Elijah Martinez portrays eager student John Biggers, a gifted artist, originally planning to fulfill his family’s expectations to become a plumber. Once Lowenfeld sees the student’s sketches, though, he pushes, prods and encourages Biggers to follow his artistic pursuits with a mantra never to compromise one’s truth. As Biggers, Martinez keeps a spark of excitement in his eyes while carrying the legacy of generations of slavery on his back like virtual bales of cotton. All while he strives to express himself with his art, the ever-present specter of racism and discrimination taunts him. Martinez portrays Biggers with a humble yet proud manner – excited to reach high pinnacles of self expression and devastated when society crushes his enthusiasm.
In one moving scene, Lowenfeld guides Biggers to draw a simple line and explore where it leads with startling results. In another, he blindfolds student Samella Lewis to tap into her inner consciousness to dig beneath the superficiality of her expressions.
Crashonda Edwards portrays art student Lewis with a self assured stride and a refreshingly robust attitude about her own self-worth. Edwards makes loud and bold pronouncements about her previous training and makes it a point to be fairly considered or no one will be spared the consequences.
It’s great to see David Lamont Wilson back on stage portraying renowned artist Charles White — sightings have been few and far between since he’s usually spinning equipment as sound designer, so catch his energy while you can. Lolita-Marie as his wife Elizabeth Catlett is also a treat to watch, with a gentle spirit and upright bearing.
Though based in Hampton, the focus of the story is on Lowenfeld and his motivation. And what a work of art is Sasha Olinick portraying him. Olinick disappears into his character so far that one wonders if he’ll ever emerge, nailing the intellectual curiosity and passion of the committed artist. Still, Olinick is rather restrained for this production barely reacting to his character’s up and down career travails or even devastating news about family back in Austria. He’s most authentic when he encourages his students to tap into their history, their past, their senses, and tell their own story. Sarah Douglas plays his dutiful wife, Margaret with strength and dignity.
The Hampton Years
Closes June 30, 2013
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $45 – $60
Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays
Lawton’s script alludes to the deplorable conditions of the time, depicting Hampton as a safe haven where talented artists could pursue their expression. The script also successfully shows the duality of how this could conflict with the institution’s mission to help elevate Negro students to practical self-sufficiency, especially in the days of segregation and Jim Crow.
The versatile set by Robbie Hayes serves as an art class, a dining room, art studio, and the cramped cluttered professor’s office on stage right. Two large picture windows fill the back drop, and the walls are covered in the graceful art of tree limbs, reflecting the college’s famous Emancipation Oak mentioned prominently by the characters.
Nicely directed by Shirley Serotsky, the production moves comfortably with actors arranging table settings, and set pieces with ease, while costume designer Debra Kim Sivigny in tandem with lighting by Harold F. Burgess II create poignant silhouette tableaux reflecting the artist’s sketches and paintings.
The ending is a little too pat, with everything tied up in neat convenient bows especially when the first act set up such dynamic expectations and dramatic tension. Still, it’s hard to top the vibrancy of the true stories and exuberant performances staged to make a difference. Theater J has ended the season with a meaningful bang and will likely see this laudable world premiere launch from “locally grown” to life of its own.
The Hampton Years by Jacqueline E. Lawton . Directed by Shirley Serotsky . Featuring Sasha Olinick, Sarah Douglas, Julian Elijah Martinez, David Lamont Wilson, Colin Smith, Edward Christian, Crashonda Edwards and Lolita Marie. Scenic Designer: Robbie Hayes . Lighting Designer: Harold F. Burgess . Costume Designer: Debra Kim Sivigny . Sound Designer: Matthew M. Nielson . Properties Master: Timothy Jerome Jones . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.