In the early 1940s, a young man named John Biggers enrolled at Hampton Institute, a black college near Norfolk, at the same time that Viktor Lowenfeld, a painter and art scholar who had fled Nazi persecution in Austria, arrived to establish the school’s art department.
The artistic aspirations that nourished them both — after the teacher dissuaded the student from majoring in plumbing so that he might dedicate himself to the brush and easel — form the thematic core of “The Hampton Years,” a world-premiere dose of history-laced edu-tainment from D.C. playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton and Theater J.
The drama, based on real people and directed with care by Shirley Serotsky, shows off the impressive research Lawton has done in constructing her account of a time of awakening for African American artists. An audience emerges after two hours in the Goldman Theater at the DC Jewish Community Center agreeably enlightened about efforts at Hampton — today known as Hampton University — to fortify young black men and women for a world resistant to their artistic goals.
What isn’t revealed powerfully enough at this stage of the play’s development is the tale’s specialness. Lawton’s genteel treatment is certainly edifying, and if imparting information is the play’s ultimate aim, then the mission has been accomplished. But if pursuing dramatic tension is also part of the plan, “The Hampton Years” has not quite reached the finish line.
The nebulous obstacle challenging both Viktor (Sasha Olinick) and John (Julian Elijah Martinez) is an establishment in wartime America that’s not yet willing to accept black painters and sculptors into the mainstream — or even, in many cases, into the buildings. “The Hampton Years” has characters recount the indignities that racism and segregation impose on black intellectuals, as in the story of how a group of black students had to find a surreptitious way to traverse a segregated park to enter an art museum.
The report of this incident and others — such as the account by one of John’s classmates (Crashonda Edwards) of the sculpture of hers purchased by a Virginia museum ending up on a shelf in the basement — are more interesting than what the play shows us of life in Viktor’s department. Viktor’s struggles with the college administration over the magnitude of his vision, for example, seem ordinary. What department chair worth his or her salt hasn’t contended with budget constraints and meddling administrations?
This might be an accurate reflection of how things were at Hampton; it’s just not gut-grabbing. And, as portrayed with a thick German accent and distracted air by Olinick, Viktor remains a rather one-dimensional touchstone. (Ze scenes in da haus mit Olinick und Sarah Douglas, az his vife, Margaret, reminded me of the moment in “Casablanca” when the German refugee husband asks his wife for the time by saying, “What watch?” and she responds with, “Ten watch.”)
The magnetic Martinez has more success as eager young John, who would go on, after following Lowenfeld to his next job at Penn State, to a career as a muralist. And Edwards, a key player in Theater J’s recent staging of David Mamet’s “Race,” gives another highly watchable performance here, as a gifted student in her own right, unhappily vying for attention with the teacher’s pet.
The play covers the years 1939 to 1946 at Hampton, the alma mater, by the way, of Booker T. Washington. And it does fill you with admiration for the pioneering efforts of Viktor, who both nurtured black visual artists and championed the art of Africa. Like the recent “Pitmen Painters,” Lee Hall’s fact-based drama about British coal miners who enroll in an art course and paint studies of their own working lives that gain favor with critics and connoisseurs, “The Hampton Years” portrays art as opening eyes to the plights of the excluded.
With the turn of a couple of wall units, Robbie Hayes’s set easily converts from Viktor’s studio and office to the home he and Margaret make, unconventionally, in one of Hampton’s black neighborhoods. Some of the production’s other devices need to be re-thought, principally, a series of images behind a screen, embodied by actors David Lamont Wilson and Lolita-Marie, that are supposed to evoke the inspirations for the drawings and sculpture of Martinez’s John and Edwards’s Samella Lewis. They don’t elucidate the artists’ points of view in any necessary way.
And yet, “The Hampton Years” is necessary. It is the latest entry in Theater J’s groundbreaking “Locally Grown” community-supported arts festival, an ongoing effort to bring plays by Washington writers to the city’s stages. It is quite simply one of the most important and worthwhile projects that any local theater has adopted, in the cause of making this a more hospitable city for playwriting talent. Like Lawton’s Viktor Lowenfeld, Theater J has that enviable itch: to be there at the birth.
by Jacqueline E. Lawton. Directed by Shirley Serotsky. Set, Robbie Hayes; lighting, Harold F. Burgess II; costumes, Debra Kim Sivigny; sound, Matthew M. Nielson; dramaturg, Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zoe; dialects, Gary Logan; scenic artist, Amy Kellett. With Colin Smith, Edward Christian. About 2 hours 10 minutes. Through June 30 at DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit www.theaterj.org or call 800-494-8497.