“The Hampton Years” recounts the story of Viktor Lowenfeld, an Austrian Jewish immigrant to the United States and his relocation to Virginia in the 1940s to start an art department at Hampton University and his teaching of artists John Biggers and Samella Lewis. Throughout the show, Viktor implores his students to do more with their art, to dig deep within themselves and their emotions to really draw out their art. If only the show had taken that advice. If you want a quick sketch of this potentially intriguing story then you will certainly receive that from this production, but if, like me, you enjoy theater that delves deep into the emotions of the characters and explores the more difficult and aspects of their lives than this misses the boat completely. The show felt like there were several different stories within the production, but it never completely committed to any one of those and left me as a passive passenger on the journey. A journey that seemed more interested in arriving at the conclusion, providing a few moral lessons and giving everyone a happy-ending than putting forth a truly entertaining dramatic production.
Was this a show about Viktor’s development of the art department, his relationship with his students, John Biggers becoming an artist, Samella Lewis becoming an artist, the racism the characters experienced in trying to become artists? It was all those things, but by trying to be all those things it was none of them. It almost played out as a series of snapshots about these characters, but as soon as the scene was over so was the dramatic arc that was being developed. For instance, at one point in the show the US Navy is upset with a mural John was commissioned to paint in the mess hall that portrays some of the black soldiers performing their jobs that elicits imagery of slavery. Viktor refuses to stand up for him the way we want and the scene ends. John is then in a mental hospital for treatment of depression and receives a note of support from Viktor, which causes John to start painting and the scene ends. Other than a passing discussion later about how the letter helped him pick-up his paint brush again it was never addressed. There was no dramatic performance of John’s downward spiral and the scene where he losses the mural commission does not play as a spark for that depressive cycle. In another instance we learn that Viktor’s wife was writing letters to her family in Austria since she arrived in the United States, but it is said almost in passing early in the show. During the second act, Viktor receives a letter stating that his family had all been killed during the Holocaust. He returns home to show his wife the letter, she collapses in his arms and they slowly make their way off stage. This 2 minutes of stage time was the totality that this issue was addressed and felt rather superfluous other than a cheap morality moment late in the show. That morality play came out of left field. Viktor has moved to Virginia to start this art department and throughout the show he is supportive of his students driving them to become more and wanting their work to obtain more exposure. There is no hint of any bigotry or racism in the character. Then we are presented with a scene out of an after school special where Viktor is talking with his wife about his students and explaining how these black students all had common features, because of their race. Only for Viktor’s wife to compare that belief to the German’s feelings towards the Jews in Europe. Viktor quickly realizes the error of his thinking, a thinking that was never explored until that very moment of the show…and end scene. Rinse and repeat this cycle with Samella’s struggles and Viktor’s struggles to get the art department up and running and so on and so forth. We are continually told about their struggles, but as an audience we are never truly a witness to any of them. That brings me to the characters of Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, accomplished black artists that are brought to Hampton University to teach, except we never see them teach. They appear as parental figures to John and Samella, with the true purpose of being stand-ins for the black art community that is wiser to the art world and the world of racism that Viktor does not quite grasp.
That was the common theme of this show, moment to moment to tell the story, but never really looking to dive into the darker aspects of that story. The potential for a quality show was there, but the unwillingness to truly explore the darker issues such as John’s depression, Viktor’s struggle to get the art department running, the racism of the era just left the show as a forgettable experience.