Theater J's final play in its 2012-2013 season, Jacqueline Lawton's "The Hampton Years," is a carefully researched, meticulously detailed historical play that outlines several large, intertwined narratives: the slow growth of racial integration in the American South, the various paths by which artistic talent develops and the emergence of modern art in America after World War II.
The play takes place at Virginia's Hampton Institute, originally designed after the Civil War as a vocational school for African-American soldiers. The play traces its evolution into a liberal arts college where African-Americans could become painters and sculptors.
Lawton begins her drama at Hampton in 1939, when Viennese refugee Viktor Lowenfeld (Sasha Olinick) arrives with his wife, Margaret (Sarah Douglas), to be the first studio art teacher. Through Lowenfeld's relationship with his African-American students John Biggers (Julian Elijah Martinez) and Samella Lewis (Crashonda Edwards) and through his reading of passages from a book he is writing, we learn Lowenfeld's philosophy of art education.
|'The Hampton Years'|
|» Where: Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW|
|» When: Through June 30|
|» Info: $15 to $60; 202-777-3210; washingtondcjcc.org|
Other characters include the noted sculptor Elizabeth Catlett (Lolita-Marie) and painter Charles White (David Lamont Wilson). Lowenfeld, Biggers, Lewis, Catlett and White are all well-known historical characters, and their works and lives are liberally referenced. In a weaker script, those references might seem lifted directly from an art history book, but Lawton makes her characters into credible dramatic figures.
Olinick is excellent as Lowenfeld, who molds his students' spirits as well as their artistic capabilities. Martinez is powerful as the sensitive young Biggers. Edwards emphasizes Lewis' feisty spirit, particularly when she hears that one of her sculptures was bought by a museum only to be stored in the basement.
Lolita-Marie portrays Catlett as a larger-than-life character who leaves New York with her husband, Charles White (David Lamont Wilson), to infuse Hampton with her warmth and sophisticated style. Wilson portrays White as an emotionally sturdy, intelligent guide who helps Biggers find his way.
Although the acting is universally fine, there is a curious sense that instead of having a true dramatic conflict, the play is a simple rotation of good and bad events. Among the good events, there is a famous African-American exhibition curated by Lewis; and Biggers follows Lowenfeld to Pennsylvania State University. Among the bad events, Biggers is humiliated, sent to the back of a bus; and it took many decades for Hampton to name an African-American president.
Also, Lawton's desire to attack so many subjects in one play almost overwhelms the script. But Shirley Serotsky's sturdy direction keeps the play on the right course, presenting in the final scene a heartwarming sense of a family of artists and outsiders, a group that has survived much by facing innumerable obstacles together.