I don’t know what I like, but I know what art is. I just don’t know how to define it. I could consult a dictionary, but that doesn’t seem very artistic. Art should be felt and experienced rather than explained, and The Hampton Years offers an experience that is at least expressly understood and appreciated, if not emotionally arresting.
The concept of art lingers at the center of The Hampton Years, currently playing at the Wells Theatre through February 7 as the latest installment of Virginia Stage Company’s American Soil New Plays Series, but the plot’s focus is on the artists themselves. Set in Hampton University during World War II, it tells the true story of John Biggers and Samella Sanders, two art students in a new program championed by Viktor Lowenfeld, an Austrian refugee and art professor with an enthusiasm for art depicting “the American negro experience.” With the assistance and approval of university president Malcolm Maclean, Lowenfeld enlists Elizabeth Catlett, an established African-American artist, to assist as an instructor in this historical yet little known endeavor.
Playwright Jacqueline Lawton depicts the students as wide-eyed dreamers hopeful to find success similar to that of Catlett, who plainly admits that she’s one of the lucky ones, and in one of the more poignant moments of dialogue points out the challenges these students face in trying to be recognized in a society that doesn’t care to notice them, let alone celebrate their experiences. Director Chris Hanna manages to keep this poignancy intact by avoiding any kind of bombastic soapboxing that a less experienced storyteller might employ with such hot-button issues as equality and race. Hanna instead delivers a well-paced though perhaps too polite presentation of human interest that breezes by in ninety minutes.
Throughout the story we listen to conversations about the artistic process, more so as discussion than argument. We never believe that Lowenfeld is ever in any real danger of losing his position for the risks he’s taking because the turmoil always happens offstage and is delivered almost too pleasantly by President Maclean. The audience accepts the characters’ passions without really feeling the force of it.
All five members of the ensemble deliver performances free of pretension, embracing the challenge of portraying optimism during a time of bleak prospects. Meredith Noël Johnson particularly shines as the young Miss Sanders with an infectious spirited energy. W. Tré Davis deftly balances the hope and discouragement of John Biggers with a thoughtful performance filled with vigor and empathy. Adam Greer and Chandra Thomas provide the appropriate anchor as the two instructors guiding the young artists, and local actor Eric Harrell (who stole the show in Tidewater Stage’s recent production of The Nerd) is solid as President Maclean.
The play seems to have been streamlined from its original two and a quarter hour runtime when it premiered in Washington, DC in 2014, but other than perhaps providing a more detailed backstory of Lowenfeld and the inner workings of the Hampton University faculty, local audiences are still presented with a satisfyingly complete story highlighting the endeavors of the students and their struggles to earn recognition and exposure of their work.
Scenic designer Blair Mielnik has equipped the stage of the Wells Theatre with an impressive set that serves as both classroom and museum, nicely complimenting the projections designed by Samuel Flint. The only unpleasant aspect of the presentation was a consistent hypnotic hum from the speakers that may have only been prominent to those seated in the near vicinity.
The Hampton Years tells an interesting story of local art history full of nuance, and while it ultimately may not be the most compelling piece of art that you’d want to prominently hang on the wall, it still serves as an intriguing installment of art history worth a trip to the museum.
The Hampton Years runs through Feb 7 at the Wells Theatre in downtown in Nfk. Tickets range in price from $19 -$55 (depending on when you go and where you sit). Call the VSC box office at (757) 627-1234 or check vastage.org.