A new play from a young playwright is almost always rocky terrain. The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of Keith Glover's Coming of the Hurricane is no exception, though Israel Hicks's distinguished direction does much to smooth the way for the viewer.
There is some wonderful dialogue here, along with a few excellent characterizations and a tragic historical truth. But the play's plot line is predictable, its villains two-dimensional and its worthy ambitions transparent. All young playwrights need to learn it is better to reveal than to lecture on stage.
The story unfolds in Reconstruction Maryland in a hamlet near the Civil War battlefield of Antietam. Crixus, an ex-slave whose former master forced him to engage in mortal combat as a bare-knuckle boxer, is trying to live a quiet life with his young wife, Kazarah, and his old friend, Shadow Jack. But Kazarah is pregnant and wants to leave the dead-end existence of small-town life to find a better future for her coming child. A handsome young fighter offers her a new life in England, and she tests Crixus to see if he loves her.
A more immediate test for Crixus, however, is a black prizefighter named Cayman, whose manager wants to stage a fight between the two men. Cayman, an African who has never been a slave, throws the fight on the instructions of his manager, and Crixus's long-dormant reputation is revived. When he buys a store from a white man, though, the malicious town folk burn it down, leaving Crixus indentured to the former owner but with no means to pay off the mortgage.
That's when Hurricane, a white fighter who has made his reputation defeating black men in the name of Southern honor, blows into town. He wants to fight the winner of the bout between Crixus and Cayman. In a rather unbelievable yet strangely poignant scene, Hurricane sizes up his opponent and pronounces him worthy.
Bill Christ's burly performance as Hurricane defies the cliches of the situation; the complexities of his own personality thankfully take over the role. He plays Hurricane as an arrogant racist yet retains a shred of real honor and the capacity to respect another man for his skill and character. Charles Weldon as Crixus opens up in this scene and shows us new depths in the character's soul--a quiet strength that carries over into the play's last scenes.
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The problem with Weldon's performance through the first act is that we never quite believe in his suffering. He rages well, but his anguish is described rather than revealed. It's a relief to see him warm to the character in the second act, even though the long-awaited fight sequence with Hurricane is carefully choreographed and utterly unreal. He is undermined by the script's relentless telegraphing of horrors to come: Throughout the play, it's obvious what will happen next, exactly why and how it all will end.
Ray Aranha brings to the role of Shadow Jack fine shades of wisdom. Jack knows how he has been mistreated and manipulated by white people, and Aranha gives the impression of a man sliding slowly down a cliff and digging in with his fingernails. The kind and intelligent old man tries to make peace and protect his friends from harm, but the downward slope--the depravity of racism--is too much for him. It is the single most moving performance of the evening.
Christopher Birt delivers all the punch and charisma of a dashing, gifted athlete to his role as Cayman. Cynthia Ruffin as Kazarah is, first to last, a treat--a delicious presence, she projects warmth, inner beauty and majestic grace.
Each of the performers, in fact, gives Hurricane moments of truth and beauty. Even Glover offers a number of subtle insights scrambled among his more obvious pronouncements. The play does have important things to offer about the horror of slavery and its legacy of racism. The emotions it seeks to stir, however, are too great for the pot in which they simmer.