By Kim Jackson
What matters in Ashe in Johannesburg, a newly commissioned play by Hannah Benitez currently running at Burning Coal Theatre Company, is that it tells the story of how Arthur Ashe, the tennis star, is transformed by his experiences in South Africa in 1973. As directed by Jerome Davis, this production explores Ashe’s journey to becoming an activist through a series of episodes that occur during his trip to play at a tournament in Johannesburg. The drama is propelled by Ashe’s reflection on the events, and as he self-reflects, the audience is also forced to examine their own participation (or lack thereof) in the face of social injustice.
The audience is introduced to Ashe after a rousing, confrontational African dance choreographed by Avis Hatcher Puzzo, which serves as a warning that this is going to be a fierce and authentic portrayal of actual events. In this story, Ashe is accompanied by Frank Deford, a writer for Sports Illustrated, on his journey to play in the South African Open. “A black man returns to Africa,” Ashe muses, “returning to a place you’ve never been.” The irony is not lost on him, but it isn’t until he is confronted with the harsh realities of apartheid on the streets of Soweto that Ashe realizes he must do more than wield his racket on the court as a form of protest.
The events and characters Ashe encounters over the course of some 90 minutes serve to illuminate and fuel his latent activism. Indeed, these interactions are compelling and serve to dramatize the conditions this young black man faced as he broke the color barrier in men’s tennis. While he was lauded for his unusually civilized and disciplined manner on the court, the tennis champion endured a fair amount of criticism for his initial reticence in supporting social causes. But what he encounters in apartheid South Africa dramatizes his transformation, interrogating his beliefs and the image he has of himself.
Joel Oramas plays the title character with an appropriate amount of restrained precision that captures the renowned dignity of this young professional athlete. The ensemble moves through a variety of characters that confront Ashe, nimbly adopting different accents, as well as switching race and gender. Distinct characters emerge to influence Ashe, from the cocky and confident lightweight boxing champ, Bob Foster, played with charming swagger by Preston Campbell, to the confrontational Althea Gibson, the first African American to win a Grand Slam title, played with a sense of fierce righteousness by Jackie Markham. This cast is to be commended for their highly engaging performances in multiple roles that never confuse the audience. These characters are vividly portrayed with strength and control. Steve Roten is also to be commended for the distinctness he brings to his dual roles: the earnest, young reporter who befriends Ashe, and as an anthropology professor, Hanekom, who functions as an apartheid apologist, defending his country’s segregation policies.
While the cast shifts roles, they must also manipulate the set, imaginatively designed by Matthew Adelson, to create the various venues. Boxes transform into furniture and moving floor panels suggest the change in setting, but at times, the movement between scenes was distracting and disrupted the narrative flow. Other times the movement of the plot felt laborious; the scenes overly long and belaboring a point. These elements may smooth out with subsequent performances.
And yet, this production is highly moving and certainly informative. Less a celebration of Ashe’s accomplishments on the tennis court than a commentary of how attitudes change, the show paints a fascinating portrait of the similarities of segregation in the U.S. and daily realities of apartheid in South Africa. Witnessing the state of the world in 1973 and the struggle of Ashe to reconcile his beliefs and turn them into activism reminds the audience that critical self-reflection is necessary for social justice to occur.
Ashe in Johannesburg runs through February 10th at Burning Coal Theatre. For more information visit: https://burningcoal.org/.