To create art simply the sake of it being beautiful is not enough. The artist must infuse their essence, their very being into the work so that all of them becomes a part of what they are creating. But the raw truth of self-expression is a dangerous tool to set loose on creativity; you can only paint the world as you see and experience it. As a part of their Locally Grown: Community Supported Arts Festival, Theater J presents the world premiere of The Hampton Years written by Jacqueline E. Lawton. A poignant and somewhat turbulent drama about self-discovery and artistic freedom during World War II, this exciting new work challenges the audience to view not only the characters’ stories from a different social viewpoint – but to look closely at their own lives and artistic creations as well. Well composed, and well-executed, this is a significantly impressive production.
Scenic Designer Robbie Hayes creates a nurturing environment on the stage for free expression; a place for ideas and visions to grow and unfurl to their fullest potential. The high walls of the Doc’s office and classroom, which later double as his home, are stenciled upon with a shadowy outline of an enormous tree, perhaps literally the Emancipation Oak referenced in the text or more symbolically a great artistic vision that simply didn’t sprout up over night but took time and effort and a struggle to get to the proportions at which it currently stands. Hayes’ utilizes a shadow scrim technique, working in conjunction with Lighting Designer Harold F. Burgess II, to create some of the play’s most stunning moments in silhouette; the visions and memories of the young Negro artists as they see them, the ultimate emotions that will travel into their work, visualized live just beyond their conscious and into the audience’s reality.
With the main character being an Austrian man who has fled to America during the war, Dialect Coach Gary Logan proved his worth with the flawless sounds generated from both the lead and his character’s wife. Crisp clean Austrian accents, enough to let you know that they were originally from the country, fled immigrants, but were learned and scholarly people with well-spoken and easily understandable English. The southern sounds that lilted in and out of the other characters’ voices were just enough to remind the audience that we had delved down into Virginia.
Lawton’s work is a unique exploration that confronts the audience with not only the challenges of Negro oppression, but she subtly touches on the inequality of gender in this play. The dialogue is compelling, someone is always pushing someone to do something, driven heavily by words and honest convictions laced into that text. Lawton juxtaposes the notion of ambition and dreams, to rise above and follow through, against the basic concept of children’s psychology, all of which is focused through the lens of creating art. The play speaks volumes about all of these critical subject matters while still keeping the focus on the art of creation; in the faces of the audience without being offensive.
Director Shirley Serotsky brings a group of eight talented actors to the stage for Lawton’s work, each one cast perfectly into the roles that they are given. Serotsky sets a pace that moves the play along without incident, allowing enough time for key concepts to be absorbed without overstressing them. Her work in creating believable scenes between the characters is remarkable, and you lose all sense of watching a play, feeling completely engaged with these characters and their story to the point that you are almost one of them.
Doctor Viktor Lowenfeld (Sasha Olinick) in a sense is the play’s protagonist; it’s mostly his story that we see, and the way his story impacts the stories of others. Olinick gives an exceptional performance, his accent in particular being a high point. Grounded in the reality of his work, Olinick is firmly rooted in his beliefs, driven by a perpetual force to motivate others. Whether it’s his wife Margaret (Sarah Douglas) when working through his latest ideas with his book and their lives, or motivating John Biggers (Julian Elijah Martinez) to truly paint and sketch what he sees inside, Olinick gifts his character with a passion that is not easily unsettled.
Martinez as the eager and enthusiastic student becomes a much more complex character as the production progresses. His beliefs and passions are threaded into all of his on-stage actions from the way he carries the character with an upright sense of pride and respect, to the way he pauses to visualize and absorb all of the wisdom the Doc has to offer. Martinez has a constant twinkle in his eye and keeps the character’s energy running high throughout the entire production. He does not merely exist in a bubble of dreamy bliss, but in the harsh reality of society’s limitations, which he is determined not rise above. His concentrated energy channels his character’s convictions and makes them an ever-present part of every scene.
Playing opposite Martinez in the role of Samella, an equally talented female art student, is Crashonda Edwards. With a little sass and attitude Edwards is an appropriate foil for Martinez’s success. While the pair aren’t really rivals, at least not outside of what Samella feels, Edwards harbors a subtle rivalry between them when they share the stage. Her eager attitude is no less effectual when approaching her art, but the moments she spends exploring the inner depths of why she wishes to create are exponentially more harrowing and haunting, even though some of them are quite fond memories. Watching her face, voice and body transform completely during these recollective moments is an astonishment because she is so fiercely present, despite being mentally far away in memory.
Theater J’s The Hampton Years is a fantastic success with balancing emotions and reality as well as the gravity of the world torn apart during World War II. It covers a broad spectrum of what it means to be a Jewish artist or a Negro artist at that time, and thoroughly exploring the symbolisms of art as a creation and discovery of self. It’s a sensational and enthralling new work that should be seen.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.
The Hampton Years plays through June 30, 2013 at Theater J at The Washington DC Jewish Community Center (DCJCC) – 1529 16th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.