As Michael Corleone in "The Godfather: Part III," Al Pacino utters the immortal words, "Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in." Therein lies the basis for many a tragic tale, where an embittered warrior is forced back into service against his better judgment.
"Coming of the Hurricane," the powerful play currently running at the Barksdale Theatre, is such a tale. Set in 1877 in the wake of the Civil War, the story focuses on Crixus Tell (Kevin G. Adams), a former slave who was forced to fight other slaves to the death before he escaped and went North to build a more peaceful life. When circumstances conspire to get him into the boxing ring again, we hope that just this once a fight will be his salvation.
"Hurricane" gets a little scattered on its way to a climactic battle between Crixus and a Southern white boxer called John "The Hurricane" Blaine (James Denvil), who makes his living mostly by beating up former slaves. Though director Ernie McClintock largely succeeds in weaving the many diffuse elements of the show into a cohesive whole, he can't quite bring it all together. Even so, the heady mix of ancient ritual, American history and personal tragedy he presents still ends up packing the impact of a hard punch to the solar plexus.
McClintock's boldest decision is to begin the night with a scene of initiation set in Africa, where young fighters are ritualistically welcomed into adulthood. These warriors reappear at key moments in the play, adding a resonant intensity to the action. The incense that is burned in the first scene lingers throughout the show as another reminder of where Crixus' journey really began.
As the tormented Crixus, Adams delivers a compassionate performance in his stage debut. His strength lies in his simplicity. Adams doesn't offer histrionics, just raw and unadorned emotion, particularly in a monologue where Crixus recounts his harrowing escape to freedom. The rest of McClintock's cast is capable, but the characters they play are treated with varying degrees of respect in Keith Glover's script. A fascinating subplot involving intraracial prejudice allows Ansa Akyea to shine as a black boxer who has never known slavery. Playing Crixus' corner man, Shadow Jack, Zaria Griffin is given numerous occasions to chew the scenery, and he dines sumptuously.
The strand of plot that involves Crixus' pregnant lover, Kazarah (Jessica Bonner), however, dangles alongside the rest of the play, so that Bonner's impassioned speech at the show's climax unfortunately falls flat. The Hurricane himself is also ineffectively rendered in Glover's script, but Denvil does a fine job finding the humanity in what could have been a simply symbolic character.
The sound design of Andrew Timko helps set a foreboding tone and is emblematic of why, for the most part, this production succeeds. Director McClintock creates an ambience of classic tragedy that largely conceals this play's inadequacies. And in so doing, he makes Crixus a character that stirs and ultimately breaks your
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