Theater J’s ‘The Hampton Years’ skillfully deals with race, religion, gender during WWII

Viktor Lowenfeld (Sasha Olinick), right, is the optimistic arts educator who encourages John Biggers (Julian Elijah Martinez) to pursue a career in the arts in “The Hampton Years.” (C. Stanley Photography)

John Biggers pursued an arts degree, forsaking convention for creativity. Weighing practicality against passion is perhaps not uncommon for today’s students, but segregation compounded the complexity of the choice for Biggers and his classmates at the historically black Hampton Institute (now Hampton University).

Luckily for art lovers, Biggers took the risk. He is remembered for his murals, drawings, paintings and lithographs.

Dramatist Jacqueline E. Lawton evokes Biggers’ life-changing decision in the “The Hampton Years,” playing through June 30 at Washington’s Theater J. Lawton’s historical fiction script emerged from Theater J’s Locally Grown initiative to cultivate local playwrights through mini commissions, round-table discussions and readings. The world premiere is the latest for Lawton, whose other works explore John Wilkes Booth and a modern-day Anna Karenina.

“The Hampton Years” skillfully mines issues of race, religion and gender during World War II. Biggers (Julian Elijah Martinez in his Theater J debut) seeks advice from Hampton’s new and idealistic art professor Viktor Lowenfeld. Lowenfeld (Sasha Olinick in another solid performance at Theater J following his role in “Our Class”) is an Austrian Jewish refugee scholar who encourages his students to pursue art despite the patronizing attitude of Hampton’s white president, Malcolm Shaw MacLean (Colin Smith).

Biggers’ classmate, Samella Lewis (Crashonda Edwards, last seen at Theater J in “Race”) not only dealt with discrimination because of her race but also because of her gender. Lewis, who became a well-known printmaker and art historian, commiserates with visiting arts instructor Elizabeth Catlett (Lolita Marie) about the challenges of being a female artist. Marie is a standout actor who deserves more time on stage.

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In their performance in “The Hampton Years,” Crashonda Edwards and Julian Elijah Martinez evoke the college years of the now celebrated artists Samella Lewis and John Biggers. “The Hampton Years” is the final production of Theater J’s 2012-2013 season. (C. Stanley Photography)

Actors make great use of props – especially the chalkboard – and the interchangeable set. A classroom bookshelf is turned around to reveal dining room décor for a scene in Lowenfeld’s home. Kudos to scenic designer Robbie Hayes and properties designer Timothy Jerome Jones. Outfitting the running crew in painters smocks is a nice touch.

Psychobabble distracts from the play. During several scene changes, a recording of Lowenfeld plays excerpts from his textbook about children and art, “The Nature of Creativity.” Sometimes the sound was too loud, but regardless of the noise level, Lawton’s intent with that material is lost.

The play is just over two hours, and despite feeling longer is a worthwhile performance to catch

“The Hampton Years” is playing at Theater J in Washington, D.C., through June 30. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. There is a noon performance Friday June 14, and a 3 p.m. performance Saturday June 22 and June 29. Tickets are between $35 and $75. Discounted tickets are available to patrons 35 and under or 65 and older. Call 800-494-8497 for information.