The Ujima Theater Company production of Keith Glover's second play, "Coming of the Hurricane," is as stunning and moving as the beautifully-written script itself.
It stars Dwight E. Simpson as Crixus, a former slave who was used as a "cutter" (a bare-fisted boxer who often fought to the death) by white slave owners who gambled on the outcome as if it was a cockfight. Now, as the Reconstruction era rolls on, Crixus battles his demons alone, a clenched fist who hates the whites who destroyed his life, but never broke his spirit.
Crixus' repressed rage is evoked by Simpson through his deliberate, tensely choreographed body movements and eyes narrowed in cynicism and distrust. He is contrasted in this regard with Shadow Jack, his brother, sidekick and trainer, who urges Crixus to forget the past and forge a future for himself out of what he's got, which includes his freedom, a job and a woman who loves him.
As the plot unwinds, however, we are given to know secrets horrible and heartbreaking. Crixus' inability to embrace Kazarah (played with gentle grace by Luam Semere), the young woman who will soon bear his child, pales beside this torrent of agony. It is almost too much for us to bear as an audience.
Great credit must go to director Lorna C. Hill and Simpson for this moving articulation of bitter, nearly broken man, brutally robbed of past and future, and stunned into a world darker than most of us are likely to experience.
Like a hulking beast, he waits and watches for what we do not know. Taunted and prodded into staking a claim to his future, to inexplicably be struck down again. Undaunted, he rises and prepares to faces his nemesis defiantly, armed only with the strength of body and spirit that produce his ultimate blood sacrifice. That nemesis is not Hurricane Blaine. It is something much more vast and destructive, something against which he must stand if he is to maintain his integrity and honor. This is why Crixus is a tragic hero.
When we first meet them, Crixus and Shadow Jack (a superb performance by Gerald C. Ramsey) work in a small rural store in Maryland owned by Stolkes (Tim Newell, excellent, by the way), a crusty white opportunist. Stolkes expects to make a killing on the margins in a fight between a hugely popular Hurricane Blaine, an itinerant boxing legend traveling the South as the Great White Hope.
Into this mix, pour Cayman (Roosevelt Tidwell III), a young, smooth and handsome Caribbean boxer with an eye for the pretty Kazarah, and his crafty handler, cash-handy Bigelow (Larry S. Sayres), a man admired by the shuffling Shadow Jack as someone who knows how to successfully operate in the white man's world.
It is Cayman who expects to box and beat the Hurricane (Joshua Moore) but through the machinations of scheming fight organizer Meadows (Michael Mirland) and Stolkes, Crixus becomes the black fighter of choice.
The performances are excellent from beginning to end. The assorted characters are teamed as counterpoints to one another, with no one roundly villainized or heroized. Human needs, strengths, weaknesses -- every character can be understood as having them and paying mightily for them.
The historical setting is subtly evoked through Bruce G. Kyle's lighting design, Pat Armstrong's costuming (loved the plaids) and Bob Ball's stark set design, which is an effective contrast to the complex and richly cathartic drama played out before it.
The play is Greek. We might as well be in ancient Thebes as in 19th century Maryland. There's none of that dumb-cluck mix of comedy and sentimentalism that passes for "theater" these days. See "Mud, River, Stone" at the Studio for that, or "Steel Magnolias," "Les Mis" or Ujima's last production, for that matter.
"Coming of the Hurricane" is that rare, pure dramatic form, a tragedy. It is artfully constructed, beautifully directed, magnificently acted by everyone in the cast and written by a young artist who I expect will continue to be a playwright of unusual distinction. Congratulations to Ujima for this one and thank you for the one theatrical experience in 50 that moved me to fear and pity.
Coming of the Hurricane
Drama by Keith Glover, directed for the Ujima Theatre Company by Lorna C. Hill, starring Dwight E. Simpson and Gerald C. Ramsey.
Performances continue Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 6 p.m. through Nov. 17 at TheaterLoft, 545 Elmwood Ave.