by Lisa Traiger
“It’s not enough to draw figures and shapes,” the art professor admonishes a student, in The Hampton Years, Theater J’s world-premiere production, “if you can’t put your body and soul into it.”
Soul, though, is what’s lacking in District-based playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton’s newest work, The Hampton Years, a studious look back at the racial tensions rife in the U.S. while the nation was embroiled in World War II. Lawton examines the master-student relationship Austrian-Jewish refugee Viktor Lowenfeld had with his students at what was then Hampton Institute (now university) from1939 to 1946. Hampton was then Virginia’s technical college for Negro students; today it’s a historically black university offering a wide range of academic disciplines.
Lawton’s play is the result of the inventive (and necessary) Locally Grown: Community Supported Art Festival that Theater J has been running for two seasons now, providing a nurturing environment in which to grow seeds of ideas into full-blown theatrical productions through a mindful creative process.
Closing out the theater’s season with this, its third world premiere in a mere nine months, marks Theater J as one of a few theaters in the region and across the nation game enough to take calculated risks on new, untested plays. The Hampton Years, which runs through June 30 at the Goldman Theater of the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center, is an example of the type of deep and long-term commitment playwrights require to bring a work from the page to the stage in a full-fledged production. From script-in-hand staged readings, to one-on-one talks with other playwrights and directors, the path to take a work before a paying audience in a theater can be a lengthy and arduous one. Theater J makes that road a bit less bumpy for a few select writers, like Lawton, who was named one of 30 of the nation’s leading black playwrights by Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute.
The story she chose to tell is little known and contains its moments of intrigue. An art educator with a solid grounding in educational theory and psychology, Lowenfeld and his wife, we learn early in the play, selected a position at Hampton over Harvard because they learned of some faculty who had Nazi connections. In any case, at Hampton the emigre professor will be able to build an art department from the ground up.
We see Lowenfeld – played stolidly by Sasha Olinick – butt heads with the institute president over the value of teaching art to Negroes, the term of choice in the 1940s. Two promising students – John Biggers (Julian Elijah Martinez) in a heartfelt portrayal and Samella Lewis (Crashonda Edwards in another spot-on performance following her work earlier in the season in Race) – struggle under their professor’s keen eye. Ultimately they reap the benefit of a hard-won education.
Lawton’s premise in delving into the true-life events and characters that make up The Hampton Years is to show the close-knit relationship between Jews and blacks during a period of deep racial discord and disparity, particularly in southern Virginia. Thus, we learn that Lowenfeld’s wife, Margaret, played plainly by Sarah Douglas, chose to settle in a predominantly African-American side of town, where they felt comfortable inviting colleagues and students to their home. An aside suggests that Margaret was never included in the white faculty wives’ bridge games, for example. Unfortunately, most of the characters, even protagonist Lowenfeld and his closest student Biggers, are mere sketches, not fully fleshed out in ways that make one want to really get to know them and root for them.
The exposition plays out in Lowenfeld’s messy office and art classroom and the spare Lowenfeld flat, designed by Robbie Hayes with just a few simple shifting panels featuring a chalk board to demarcate the passage of time. He’s also sketched a huge oak tree across the set representing Hampton’s Emancipation Oak, where blacks gathered in 1863 to hear the first reading in the South of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Most interesting in Hayes’ set is a central panel where, when the students are processing their emotions to create, we see a living representation of their art depicted behind a sheer scrim. These fleeting snapshots – of a struggling soldier, mother and child, an African man dancing (Lolita-Marie and David Lamont Wilson) – are among the few brief moments under Shirley Serotsky’s mindful direction when true feeling and spirit break through the often overly expository and didactic script.
The process of birthing new plays is never easy. Too few theaters are willing to take that risk. That Theater J not only produces new works, but provides opportunities for readings, workshops and critical response throughout the process is commendable, particularly during a period when economics more often than not dictate artistic creativity. While The Hampton Years in its present form feels more like an enhanced educational show than a full-blown drama, it does underscore a story of Jewish-black collegiality that might have gotten lost in a footnote of a textbook without Lawton’s research and Theater J’s resources.
The Hampton Years by Jacqueline E. Lawton is on stage through June 30 at the DCJCC in the District. Tickets, $35-$75, are available by calling 800-494-8497 or at www.boxofficetickets.com. For more information, visit www.theaterj.org.