The Hampton Years, the new play currently playing at Theater J in Washington, shows the value of highlighting a little known chapter in black history – in this case, the rise of African-American artists at a historically black college during World War II, with the help of an encouraging Austrian refugee who ran the department. It’s the latest effort from playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton, who has specialized in historical drama. The Hampton Years benefited from more than a year of workshops, scrutiny and rewrites in the theater’s first Locally Grown festival.
…some nice moments of clarity and enlightenment in all the discourse
Sasha Olinick plays Viktor Lowenfeld, the Austrian Jew who travels to Hampton Institute, as it was then known, to start an art department at a time when few Southern whites could see the value of teaching blacks art.
Sarah Douglas plays his supportive wife, trying to outdo him in the Austrian accent department, but still with a lovely singing voice.
Julian Elijah Martinez plays the earnest artist John Biggers, whose work was good enough to get in the Museum of Modern Art while he was still in school (but one negative anonymous review was thought to be enough to sink him — and all of Hampton. (Oh, the imagined power of critics!).
Like Biggers, Crashonda Edwards’ character Samella Lewis is an actual artist, as is Elizabeth Catlett, well-played by Lolita-Marie. Likewise, David Lamont Wilson has verve as the artist Charles White.
Colin Smith and Edward Christian round out the cast as various white authority figures who stand in the way.
Robbie Hayes’ set is a functional and warm wood of an old college classroom, with high ceilings and leaded glass. Though parts of it sub for the Lowenfeld home (when the blackboard flips around to become a decorative painting), the play never travels too far from the schoolroom.
Indeed, when Lowenfeld isn’t lecturing the artists in a manner ripped straight from classroom presentations, he’s reciting history in a manner suggesting an old education film. This makes a play already lacking in action to sometimes bog down in talky theory. But it only gets off-putting when Lowenfeld keeps reading from his book on childhood education. As if his character wasn’t already paternalistic enough, now we can compare his theories to treating artistic children even as he applies the same approaches teaching fully grown black artists.
There are some nice moments of clarity and enlightenment in all the discourse, just as there might be moments occasionally shining through in an otherwise dreary semester of an actual class.
Hayes’ set has one nifty trick, when artists begin rhapsodizing on their work or their inspiration, suddenly a scrim is lit behind the walls to illuminate colorful figures in motion. These end up being the high points in the production by director Shirley Serotsky that’s so respectful it’s also often dull.
Running Time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.
The Hampton Years plays at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW in Washington through June 30. Tickets are available through 800-494-8497 or here.