'Hurricane' takes off the gloves Theater review: Bare-knuckles tale about a black-white prizefight hits on several levels.

January 26, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Prize fighting is dramatic in and of itself. Imagine, then, a fight between a black man and a white man in the wake of the Civil War, near Antietam, site of that war's bloodiest battle.

Keith Glover's "Coming of the Hurricane" is drama that succeeds on numerous levels -- including its in-the-round staging at Washington's Arena Stage, the theater that premiered the most famous interracial prizefight play, "The Great White Hope," nearly three decades ago.

Unlike that play, which was based on real-life boxer Jack Johnson, "Coming of the Hurricane" is about fictional characters, but there is a historical context to Glover's drama.

Crixus, the protagonist, is a former "cutter," the term applied to slaves whose masters forced them to fight other slaves in bare-knuckles matches in which the victor often killed his opponent.

Keith Randolph Smith's Crixus displays the physical scars of his past. His face is disfigured, his back is covered with wounds from whippings, his wrists are ringed with shackle marks, and his left arm bears the brand of his former owner.

But the power of Smith's powder-keg performance derives from the character's inner scars. Shadow Jack, his brother-in-law and the man with whom he escaped from slavery, says Crixus looks evil all the time. And Smith lets Crixus' rage brim dangerously close to the surface, especially at the start of the play.

Only after his reluctant return to the ring does Crixus find an outlet for his anger and see a chance to achieve peace and a better life for himself, his common-law wife and the child she will soon bear him.

But the fight that forms the climax of this searing play is no mere sporting event. Crixus is pitted against a white champion called the Hurricane, billed as the man who will restore the glory of the Confederacy by vanquishing his black opponent.

Thus the play operates on a metaphorical as well as historical level. It also works on a literary level, thanks to Glover's compelling storytelling -- especially the chilling account of Crixus' only loss as a cutter. Considering the subject matter, the play also must succeed on a physical level, and David S. Leong's fight direction -- particularly of the climactic bout -- has blood-and-guts credibility.

What pulls you in most, however, is the play's effectiveness on the personal level -- the detailed portraits it paints of its main characters, and the visceral way they are portrayed. This applies not only to Smith's Crixus, but also to Linda Powell's moving depiction of his devoted common-law wife, Kazarah, and Wendell Wright's wise, good-natured Shadow Jack.

Furthermore, almost every character changes and grows. Even Chad L. Coleman, as a slick but shallow West Indian fighter, and Damien Leake, as his opportunistic manager, gain purpose and depth in the tragic denouement. And most notably, Powell's Kazarah evolves from a bright but inexperienced young woman to one of maturity and determination. Only Bill Christ's Hurricane seems under-developed. In a reversal of stereotypes, he is a man of honor -- an intriguing choice by the playwright, but one that needs to be established with more background.

Except for a few overly long second-act scenes, the production is staged with riveting intensity by Center Stage associate artist Marion McClinton. The director is one of several links to Center Stage. Playwright Glover, who is also an actor, starred in McClinton's production of "Two Trains Running" at Center Stage last season, and actress Powell was in the director's acidly comic "Day of Absence" there last month.

But far more than any local boosterism, this stirring drama is an important work about an important subject. To borrow a term from yet another great prize fight play, "Coming of the Hurricane" is a genuine contender.


Where: Arena Stage, 6th and Maine Avenue, S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays; selected matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, and noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays; through Feb. 18

Tickets: $21-$42

Call: (202) 488-3300

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