That Championship Season
Also see Susan's review of She Stoops to Comedy
Director Ed Bishop has re-contextualized the play by moving it from Miller's northeastern Pennsylvania to Alabama, and changing the characters from ethnic white men (Irish, Italian, and Polish) to African-Americans. Many of the social issues are still applicable with the change of race, but not in this particular play.
In 1972, four members of a state champion high school basketball team gather for their 20-year reunion at the home of their coach (Elliott Moffitt). Outwardly, three of the men have done well for themselves in their hometown. George Sikes (Morgan James Hall), an insurance agent, is mayor and facing a tough re-election campaign. Phil Romeo (Omar A. Bah) is a prominent, if corrupt, businessman who gives his financial support to George, and other things to George's unseen wife. James Daley (Ron Lincoln) is a school principal with frustrated ambitions. Jim's brother Tom (Joseph A. Mills III) is the one who never found his place, a cynical alcoholic who enjoys telling the uncomfortable truth.
That Championship Season is very much a play of its time, focusing as it does on battles between the generations, between men and women, and between and within the races. The problem with changing the ethnic makeup of the cast is that the situation now seems less credible.
Obviously, the men would have attended a segregated high school in 1952 Alabama, but would such a team have been eligible to compete against white teams? It's a small enough city where ethnic and racial tensions stay near the surface – Phil is referred to, more than once, as half white – so one wonders how George got elected mayor in the first place, and is now running against a white, Jewish liberal who likely would be facing scrutiny from both black and white populations.
While the entire cast gives credible performances, Moffitt stands out, specifically in the volcanic third-act monologue where he describes the roots of his philosophy. (Another question: Coach is a reactionary who idolizes Father Coughlin, the anti-Semitic "radio priest" of the 1930s, and Communist hunter Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Would such a man also reference Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as heroes rather than racial traitors? Conservative attitudes at the time considered King a Communist and Malcolm X a dangerous revolutionary.)
The issue is not African-American actors in plays not written specifically for them, simply in this particular play. These five actors likely could do amazing work in a production of Death of a Salesman, for example.
Costume designer Rip Claassen understands the period, most clearly in Mills' swirl-print shirt and bell-bottomed jeans. Michael Switalski has designed a set crowded with 1970s character, yet for some reason he has left the walls unfinished.
American Century Theatre