BWW Reviews: History Comes Alive With Theater J's THE HAMPTON YEARS

By: Jun. 17, 2013

Under the taut and subtle direction of Shirley Serotsky and graced with a tremendously talented class, Theater J's The Hampton Years is nothing short of a triumph. Local playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton has given us a vital part of our history back-the humble but compelling beginnings of two towering figures in African-American art, John Biggers and Samella Lewis, who studied under Austrian refugee Viktor Lowenfeld at Virginia's Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). Set in the early 1940's, when World War II and Jim Crow combined to create a highly toxic atmosphere outside his classroom, Lawton shows us how Lowenfeld cultivated the talents of Biggers and Lewis, both of whom went on to brilliant careers as artists and educators in their own right.

As with many triumphant chapters in America's history, this one comes at great cost to all of the people involved. At the opening of the play we see Lowenfeld and his wife Margaret (Sasha Olinick and Sarah Douglas) confronting a difficult choice: accept a prestigious appointment at a Harvard University plagued by anti-Semitism at its highest levels, or take a chance on building an Art Department from scratch at a former vocational school for African-Americans near Virginia Beach. Lowenfeld chooses to move to Virginia and the Hampton Institute (already a College, actually), where he leads a new department and its African-American students in their struggle for dignity and respect. He is soon joined on the faculty by CharLes White and his wife Elizabeth Catlett (the brilliant David Lamont Wilson and Lolita-Marie), who battle Jim Crow off-campus and the Board of Governors on-campus for the survival and expansion of their department.

Racism and anti-Semitism aside, these professors have to struggle with a unique form of intellectual bigotry that prevails to this day in our most prestigious campuses. Then as now, Humanities departments survive under the doubting gaze of myopic, business-oriented Boards of Governors. These are the people who browbeat their professors, ignore their accomplishments, and demand "bottom line" results. It was hard for me to watch Lowenfeld's struggles, and his eventual banishment from Hampton, without thinking of the thinly-veiled hostility shown by prestigious schools like the University of Virginia and, yes, Howard University towards the arts and humanities. It is as if Howard and UVA were determined to turn back the clock and return both institutions to a purely utilitarian, vocational-school status. The Hampton Years argues powerfully, for Art and Theatre departments alike, of the vital need for the humanities in higher education.

As the artist and professor Victor Lowenfeld, Sasha Olinick offers us a compelling portrait of a quiet but passionate artist, and Olinick's passion is matched by the brilliant Julian Elijah Martinez, who gives us an unforgettable portrait of the young John Biggers. Crashonda Edwards, who plays Samella Lewis, reveals the unique challenges faced by African-American women trying to establish in an overwhelmingly male field; perhaps her most powerful statement is one made without words, at the play's conclusion, as she learns the very different paths Lewis and Biggers were about to take. David Lamont Wilson and Lolita-Marie, playing the husband-and-wife team of Elizabeth Catlett and CharLes White, give us a glimpse of the supportive but often tense marriage of two Committed Artists. Edward Christian and Colin Smith, meanwhile, succeed admirably in supporting roles, navigating between roles as bigoted art critics (Christian), bigoted Naval officers (Smith), as well as frustrated university presidents (both). Perhaps because her character is drawn so sparsely, Sarah Douglas' performance as Margaret Lowenfeld comes off as more stiff and restrained than the rest; as a refugee and mother who left her career and family behind in Austria, this character might have benefitted from more exploration on Lawton's part, especially since her struggles for recognition seem to mirror Lewis'.

Set Designer Robbie Hayes has created a vivid evocation of a 1940's college classroom, with its sliding blackboards and stained-wood paneling, and has allowed Lawton to reveal the visual and aural textures of Biggers' and Lewis' artistic imagination. Harold F. Burgess II's lights, coupled with the haunting sound design of Matthew M. Nielson, provide us with a hauntingly touching frame through which to witness the trials and obstacles faced by Lawton's characters.

Perhaps because this is a historical drama, and because there were many triumphs to come after the time of the play, Lawton chooses to close on a largely up-beat note with nearly all the threads of the plot amicably untangled and smoothed straight. This is an admirable conceit, but for frequent playgoers can seem false (even if historically true). There were successes ahead for all who participated briefly in the birth of Hampton's Art department, but there are times when a play benefits from the uncertainty that comes with moving on to new lives. The post-war years were by no means easy ones, either for survivors of the Holocaust or those who continued for decades to live under Jim Crow.

Running Time: 2 ½ hours.

The Hampton Years runs May 29-June 30 at Theater J in the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center's Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater. Tickets are available by calling 800-494-8497 or by logging in to

Shown Left to Right:

  1. Julian Elijah Martinez (John Biggers), Crashonda Edwards (Samella Lewis), Sasha Olinick (Viktor Lowenfeld). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
BroadwayWorld Awards Voting


Fairfax Symphony Orchestra and Fairfax Ballet to Present Tchaikovskys THE NUTCRACKER at Ge Photo
Fairfax Symphony Orchestra and Fairfax Ballet to Present Tchaikovsky's THE NUTCRACKER at George Mason University Center for the Arts

Don't miss the beloved holiday tradition of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker presented by the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra and Fairfax Ballet at George Mason University Center for the Arts.

Childrens Theatre Company To Hold Virtual And In-Person Auditions For 2024-2025 Performing Photo
Children's Theatre Company To Hold Virtual And In-Person Auditions For 2024-2025 Performing Apprenticeships

Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) is holding auditions for their 2024-2025 Performing Apprenticeships. Non-Equity Actors aged 19 and above can audition for this opportunity.

Young Performers Career Advancement Program 2024 Artists To Perform At Carnegie Hall On Ja Photo
Young Performers Career Advancement Program 2024 Artists To Perform At Carnegie Hall On January 15

The Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) announced today that five emerging classical music solo artists and a quartet of musicians from around the world have been selected to perform at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall as part of APAP's Young Performers Career Advancement Program (YPCA). 

National Philharmonic to Present HANDELS MESSIAH in December Photo
National Philharmonic to Present HANDEL'S MESSIAH in December

National Philharmonic (NatPhil) will present its annual Messiah performances, conducted by Music Director Piotr Gajewski for the first time at Strathmore and Capital One Hall.


Mexodus in Washington, DC Mexodus
Atlas Performing Arts Center (5/16-6/09)
Linda Eder in Washington, DC Linda Eder
The Barns At Wolf Trap (2/01-2/01)
Atlas Presents: Sounds of Silence Film Series: Atlas Presents: Sounds of Silence Film Series: "Bare Knees" - 1928
Atlas Performing Arts Center (4/14-4/14)
Peter Pan (Non-Equity) in Washington, DC Peter Pan (Non-Equity)
National Theatre (4/09-4/21)
The Magic Duel Comedy Show in Washington, DC The Magic Duel Comedy Show
The Mayflower Hotel (4/02-1/01)
Kennedy Center Chamber Players: Winter Concert in Washington, DC Kennedy Center Chamber Players: Winter Concert
Terrace Theater at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (1/14-1/14)
Swept Away in Washington, DC Swept Away
Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage (11/25-12/30)
DRUM TAO 2024 in Washington, DC DRUM TAO 2024
Hylton Performing Arts Center (2/10-2/10)
Dash: The Musical in Washington, DC Dash: The Musical
The James Lee Community Center Theater (12/08-12/17)
Reduced Shakespeare Company in Washington, DC Reduced Shakespeare Company
Hylton Performing Arts Center (4/13-4/13)

Recommended For You