Coming of the Hurricane

Organic Touchstone Company

By Albert Williams

“A world turned upside down”–that’s how one of the characters in Coming of the Hurricane describes the circumstances of both blacks and whites in the years following the Civil War. In Keith Glover’s exciting, boldly etched portrait of southern prizefighters, onetime slaves are now free–but economic oppression and outbursts of violence mean they’re barely a step removed from the chains of bondage the war supposedly shattered. Meanwhile whites who once owned slaves or fought for the right to own them now find themselves doing business with blacks–paying them wages, selling them property, betting with them on boxing matches–and occasionally finding that ruthless, crafty power brokers can force blacks and whites alike into servitude. The ownership of human beings may no longer be legal, but financial and social domination of one group by another is still the law of the land–and race, though crucial, is not the only factor. Slavery by any other name is still slavery.

This is the social subtext of Coming of the Hurricane, running in a gripping production at the Organic Touchstone Company. The second Glover script to play here this season–the author directed his own Thunder Knocking on the Door for Northlight last fall–was also only Glover’s second work as a playwright (it premiered in Denver in 1995). His inexperience shows a bit, in some self-consciously elegiac monologues and some heavy-handed dramaturgy at the climax. But Glover is a talented writer with an especially strong gift for verbal give-and-take; in one breathtaking passage, two men tell the story of an African boxer in rhythmically charged alternating phrases that accumulate a positively heroic lyrical force. Perhaps more important, Glover is also an actor (his credits range from regional productions of August Wilson’s Fences and Two Trains Running to TV police dramas) who has a powerful sense of the way character is shaped by past events and present desires. The people in Coming of the Hurricane are not–you should excuse the expression–black or white; they’re complex, flawed individuals who are simultaneously pathetic and comic, detestable and engaging; they rise and fall in pursuit of money, love, dignity, self-respect, power, and freedom, and we exult in their aspirations even as we recognize the inevitability of their doom.

Set in a small Maryland town near the hallowed battleground of Antietam–not the deep south, but deep enough for its ever-wary black residents–Coming of the Hurricane focuses on Crixus, a middle-aged ex-slave with a formidable reputation as a brutal fighter. Before the war he was regularly sponsored by his master in bare-knuckle bouts with other blacks, often to the death; now free, this scarred veteran resists returning to the ring, trying to keep a low profile and a tight lid on his emotions. He’s haunted by memories of a bitter past, including the deaths of his wife and infant son in an escape attempt. His pregnant young lover, Kazarah, frustrated with Crixus’s emotional paralysis, tries to stir his jealousy by flirting with a slick young West Indian named Cayman; when Cayman’s planned fight with a touring white boxer, John “the Hurricane” Blaine, is postponed, Kazarah encourages a match between Cayman and Crixus instead. The match is proposed by Bigelow, a dandified black sports promoter, and supported by Stolkes, the white owner of the dry-goods store where Crixus works. Cayman, who derides Crixus as “an old man in a young man’s game,” loses the fight–deliberately, as part of a scheme to influence Cayman’s coming match against the Hurricane: encouraging whites to bet on the Hurricane will increase the winnings of Cayman’s black backers. But when the Hurricane arrives, Stolkes–not knowing that the fight between Crixus and Cayman was fixed–arranges a showdown between Hurricane and Crixus instead.

Money is at stake in these matches–enough for Crixus to buy Stolkes’s store and support Kazarah and their baby. But honor is too. Glover depicts Crixus and the Hurricane as soldiers in a holy war, both sides justifying their cause with Scripture: blacks saw themselves as a modern version of the Hebrews who fled Egypt, while southern whites believed God had placed a “brand of eternal servitude” on blacks. Prodding the two fighters are their decidedly imperfect spiritual counselors–for the Hurricane a racist demagogue named Meadows, and for Crixus a voluble ex-slave called Shadow Jack, whose eloquent gestures and flamboyant preaching compensate for a lame leg and a missing eye and whose half-sung, half-spoken sermons proclaim a “vision” but always stop short of saying what that vision shows.

The Hurricane, a onetime Confederate soldier, is a “great white hope,” avenging southern white manhood by symbolically refighting the Civil War against black opponents on old battlefields like Antietam. Crixus in turn is standing up for his people against the racist backlash the Hurricane represents. But when these two gladiators finally face off–meeting “man to man, hand to hand, knuckle to knuckle” for 50-odd rounds of brutal bare-fisted battling–they sense a brotherhood between them that even racial hatred can’t completely wash away. Despite their camaraderie, however, they’re on unequal ground: even when he wins, Crixus learns, he’s doomed to lose.

At times suggesting an August Wilson rewrite of The Great White Hope, this often humorous but finally tragic work has a style and strength all its own. In director Jonathan Wilson’s crisp, well-cast production, the play’s setting is elegantly evoked by Kevin Snow’s sturdy wood-plank set, Mary McDonald Badger’s creative lighting (a firebombing is remarkably believable), and Julie Leavitt’s fine period costumes. Cedric Young conveys both Crixus’s primitiveness and his inherent dignity, making this secretive, sullen man’s emotional blossoming especially moving; Nambi E. Kelley brings depth as well as vivacity to Kazarah, while Frank G. Rice (despite a few opening-night verbal stumbles) gives Shadow Jack’s speeches wonderful musicality and physical grace. Phillip Edward VanLear’s black sports promoter is a masterpiece of well-crafted characterization realized through impeccably chosen and timed gestures and facial expressions; M. Martin Mapoma is charming and scary as the ambitious up-and-coming fighter Cayman, David Lively brings a zealot’s passion to the white promoter Meadows, and Raoul Johnson establishes the weakness and selfishness behind Stolkes’s seeming concern for his “nigra” employees.

Lawrence Woshner, with his mountainous yet chiseled physique, makes the Hurricane a far more interesting figure than the racist brute one might expect: the character’s charismatic gallantry contrasts with Crixus’s blunt earthiness yet echoes the black boxer’s bone-deep sense of honor. In these men’s protracted climactic battle, excitingly staged by Scott Cummins, Glover depicts male combat as a force of nature even as he mourns the evils that created this terrible storm.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Michael Brosilow.