Theater J The Hampton YearsBy Amy Berlin • Jun 5th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Theater J: (Info) (Web)
Washington DC JCC, Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater
Through June 30th
2:15 with intermission
$35-$60/$30-$55 Seniors (Plus Fees)
Reviewed June 3rd, 2013
The Hampton Years, a Theatre J world première production, rests on a fascinating premise. Jacqueline E. Lawton’s script incorporates parallel and intertwined narratives: the true experiences of a Jewish artist and teacher (Vicktor Lowenfeld), who fled Austria at the beginning of World War II, and two young African-American students (John Biggers and Samella Sanders), who are striving to become artists during the same time period, a time when racism and bigotry counseled that art education for African-American students in the segregated South was a frivolous waste of time and energy. Lawton shines a light on this captivating and challenging struggle for self-expression and truthful reflection of experience.
The Hampton Years touches on many, many intriguing concepts and questions. Scattered throughout the play are visual and aural meditations on artistic inspiration, a thought-provoking conversation on the role of art critics, a compelling disagreement on the protection of art students from real-world critiques, an absorbing subplot about jealousy and competition in creative pursuits, and a virtual history lesson on topics ranging from Harvard’s Nazi ties to the development of the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). Unfortunately, Lawton is not quite able to weave all these elements into a dramatically satisfying whole.
The characters are, for the most part, not fully realized. For example, although the play opens with a conversation between Viktor and his wife Margaret (admirably played with both strength and vulnerability by Sarah Douglas) and often returns to the couple in their home, the audience is never really drawn into their relationship; there are very few details of their life together, their personal struggles, their hopes as a family. They are not given a dramatic arc, and they seem to end the play in much the same place they began.
That is not to say that nothing happens in The Hampton Years. In fact, perhaps too much happens. Nearly every scene presents a new challenge: an obstinate Board of Trustees, an unappreciative employer, a racist encounter on a bus, and on and on. Yet, these struggles are either overcome immediately, resolved off-stage, or never mentioned again. Rather than an emotionally satisfying exploration of historical figures, the play feels more like a history lesson. The Hampton Years was overlong, with too many scenes and too much repetition of dialogue and intention. In addition, the expressionistic visual aspects (such as when the artists’ heart and thoughts were given physical manifestation) and the visceral creation moments (such as where Viktor blindfolds Samella while she sculpts) which were among the most unique and creative aspects of the production were given short shrift in favor of more academic scenes.
The stand-out element of Theatre J’s production is the stunning set by Robbie Hayes. Hayes creates a gorgeous room of windows and dark wood under the shadow of the twisted branches of unseen trees. The set functions as various places on the Institute’s campus, as well as the Lowenfeld’s home and other locations, but it succeeds in never feeling like a unit set through creative use of rotating panels and movable set pieces. Beyond its utilitariansim, the set is a true piece of art ably evoking the mood and themes of the play. Harold F. Burgess’s lights nicely complimented the set and structured the playing areas.
Aside from a few clunky moments, director Shirley Serotsky uses the stage well, and she handles the many scene changes creatively. She is less successful, however, with her cast, many of whom seem to be performing in different plays. Colin Smith and Edward Christian, who each portray two characters, have chosen to differentiate their roles by creating broad characters who, while entertaining, do not come from the same world as the rest of the more realistic cast. Sasha Olinick, who plays Lowenfeld, constructs an enjoyable paternal chemistry with his students but fails to build a consistent or specific dialect or character. It is unclear whether Lowenfeld is an absent-minded genius, someone who simply lucked into building a successful (or somewhat successful) department, someone intent on his own advancement, or a combination of the above. Crashonda Edwards, as Samella, appears with outsized energy and volume, although she relaxed as the show continued and had some lovely moments of character growth late in the show. Julian Elijah Martinez, as John, was the most successful at creating a character arc, and his John grew more refined and mature as the play progressed.
The Hampton Years is smart and ambitious, a script full of promise. However, in its current format and production, The Hampton Years felt more like a class about art than a piece of art about academia.
Photos by C. Stanley Photography
- Viktor Lowenfeld: Sasha Olinick
- Margaret Lowenfeld: Sarah Douglas
- John Biggers Julian: Elijah Martinez
- President Malcolm Shaw MacLean/Navy Admiral:Colin Smith
- Samella Lewis: Crashonda Edwards
- Elizabeth Catlett: Lolita-Marie
- Charles White David: Lamont Wilson
- President Ralph P. Bridgman/Art Critic: Edward Christian
Artistic & Production Team
- Scenic Designer: Robbie Hayes
- Lighting Designer: Harold F. Burgess II
- Costume Designer: Debra Kim Sivigny
- Sound Designer: Matthew M. Nielson
- Properties Designer: Timothy Jerome Jones
- Production Stage Manager: Karen Currie
- Dramaturg: Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe
- Dialects: Gary Logan
- Scenic Artist: Amy Kellett
- Assistant Director: Elena Velasco
- Assistant Scenic Designer: Lauren Cucarola, Veronica J. Lancaster
- Assistant Dramaturgs: Kia Griffith, Emily Kelly
- Dialects Assistant: Eva Wilhelm
- Master Electrician: Garth Dolan
- Assistant Stage Manager: Jessica Soriano
- Production Assistants: Max Talisman, Brendan McMahon
- Light Board Operator: Kevin Laughon
- Sound Board Operator: Jay Chiang
- Lighting Programmer: Aaron Waxman
Disclaimer: Theater J provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9569.
Amy Berlin has a degree in theatre performance from the University of Maryland, and is currently living in Richmond, Virginia.