Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Ramirez started out with the story of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, and his 1910 defeat of the previous white champion (whom white boxing fans called "The Great White Hope"), but he fictionalizes the characters and events to make a more general point about the backlash that often follows such a public, defiant action.
To emphasize the sports-as-life metaphor, scenic designer Debra Kim Sivigny has configured the black box theater as a boxing ring, with seating on two sides. The five actors, a tight ensemble, bring the audience into the action by standing among them at times and inviting their participation.
Jay "Sport" Jackson (Jaysen Wright) is cocky because he knows he's good. He needles a challenger (Clayton Pelham Jr.), then after the fight praises him for his skill. He has an easy friendship with his trainer Wynton (Jay Frisby) and a cordial relationship with his white promoter Max (Chris Genebach), but he's most concerned about taking on the retired white champion to prove his legitimacy. He only begins thinking about the bigger picturewhite men wanting to kill him and attacking African-American fans who admire him too vociferouslyafter a visit from a woman he knew years earlier (Lolita Marie).
Much of the 90-minute play consists of stylized boxing bouts, staged by Hernandez and Williams (supported by Kenny Neal's sound design) without actual physical contact. One boxer throws a punch, the other reels back, but they're fighting side by side instead of facing each other. More than an arresting stage effect, it brings the audience into the heads of the combatants. Sarah Tundermann's lighting design, including period fixtures, and Kelly Colburn's projections add perspective.
This production is a partnership between Olney Theatre Center and 1st Stage in Tysons Corner, Virginia, where it will be restaged early next year.
Olney Theatre Center