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Theater J premiered The Hampton Years as a part of its second annual Locally Grown Community Supported Art Festival. The Hampton Years brings together a group of people from different backgrounds during World War II and gives the audience perspective on their interactions and their struggles.

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Theater J was the perfectly intimate setting for playwright, Jacqueline Lawton, to transfer us into a time of war and segregation.

The story begins with Viktor Lowenfeld, played by Sasha Olinick, and his wife Margaret, played by Sarah Douglas, deciding whether or not they should move to Virginia. Viktor received the opportunity to create an art department at Hampton Institute in Virginia, a vocational school for black students. Viktor is an Austrian Jewish refugee placed in a school run by white people to teach art to two black students, John Biggers, played by Julian Elijah Martinez, and Samella Lewis, played by Crashonda Edwards.

The most modern example I could relate this play to (this may be a stretch) is The Real World (and, yes, that show is still running).

Now, hear me out.

All of the characters come from unique backgrounds and cultures and are thrown together at this university to interact. They are forced to sympathize with each others’ trials, make attempts to understand where the other is coming from, and sometimes it doesn’t work out.

See where I’m going with this?

What we love about The Real World (other than the ridiculous physical altercations, sex and excessive drinking), and what I loved about this play, is learning about the different places and experiences the characters come from and how it all feels so foreign from anything we have ever encountered.

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The play brilliantly takes individual plot lines and seamlessly intertwines them. It touches on the inner battle of a man during wartime while deciding to sign up to fight for his country or to sit back and watch while others die. It shines a light on the fact that, although this is a school for black people, the administration never wants them to feel “too comfortable”. Lawton also dips into the issues of gender roles, university politics, racism and so much more. But at the same time, she never allows you to feel overwhelmed.

Viktor is trying to push the boundaries with his students, but faces adversity every step of the way. He brings in two prominent black artists, Charles White played by David Lamont Wilson and Elizabeth Catlett played by Lolita Marie. These two characters are supposed to be role models for John and Samella as they continue on their journey to become reputable artists. This is the perfect example of the limited understanding between races and cultures. Where Viktor cannot relate to his two black students, Charles and Elizabeth are there to sympathize with their struggles.

The female characters stole the show. Edwards and Marie in particular breathed life into the performance. Just when you thought the story was dragging on a little bit, the two woke you up back up.

The overarching theme of the play is how art can be used for self-expression. It was refreshing to see a plot line not based on unrequited love, with a “happy ever after” ending. But that might just be the cynic in me.

According to a press release from Theater J, Lawton was named one of 30 of the nation’s leading black playwrights by Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute and it’s not hard to see why. On top of everything else Lawton has put into this play, she forces the audience to think. She pushes your mind out of its comfort zone.

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A quote from Viktor stuck with me as I was walking out of the theater.

“Change is good even when it doesn’t go our way.”

In the midst of it all, Lawton somehow managed to hit me with some wisdom. Well played, Lawton. Well played.

The Hampton Years runs May 29-June 30, 2013 at Theater J in the Washington DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Theater. 

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