BWW Review: Burning Coal Theatre's ASHE IN JOHANNESBURG, Good Story but Needs Some Work
In 1973, tennis champion Arthur Ashe traveled to Johannesburg to compete in the South African Open amidst the oppression of an apartheid-based government. He had applied for a visa to play in the tournament three times prior but was denied. His presence at the 1973 event sparked some outrage but was the catalyst for change, not only for Ashe as an activist but also for the South African people.
This story is the impetus for Hannah Benitez's new play, ASHE IN JOHANNESBURG. Burning Coal Theater commissioned Benitez to write the play, and it is a compelling story to tell. However, the show, which opened this weekend, needs further development before it achieves the same level of polish and flair as other historical dramas like David Hare's STUFF HAPPENS, which opened Burning Coal's current season.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the play is the fact that it is less about tennis and more about Ashe's journey of self-discovery from being just another career athlete to becoming an outspoken activist. Benitez's script paints a realistic portrait of Ashe not as a "hero," but as an inquisitive and guarded man wrestling with the ideals instilled in him by his father. Joel Oramas' respectable performance as the title character reveals Ashe as both a public figure and a vulnerable man struggling with some inner demons admirably. And Steve Roten's magnetic performance as sportswriter Frank Deford is entertaining and insightful.
It is clear too that this is a passion project for the eager ensemble, as well as for Director Jerome Davis, whose purposeful and imaginative staging seems overly ambitious at times. The clunky, floor panel pieces set on rails and manipulated by the cast throughout the show make for some awkward transitions from scene to scene. And the use of projected screen titles, while cinematic, make the show feel more like a biopic at times than a rich theatrical experience. Still, there are moments where Davis is sharply focused and masterful in his resolve to get his point across, such as in the climax of the show where Ashe debates Christopf Hanekom, a distinguished Professor at Stellenbosch University. Structurally, the scene feels a little choppy, but the staging is spot-on and engaging.
Perhaps the biggest problem here has less to do with the production elements and more to do with Benitez's script, which falls just short of connecting the dots between Ashe and the events of 1973 and the relevance of those events to today. The parallels to then and now are striking, but Benitez seems to be holding back in her commentary. Perhaps if she had gone all-in and tackled the subject matter with the voracity of a writer taking a "path-less-beaten" or on a quest to "challenge the topical," as she herself notes on her website, this script would have gone from being merely good to great.
Still, the world needs some good hero stories, especially now, and this one feels like it checks all the boxes for the makings of a great play. Perhaps with some further development, it just might get there. It's just not there yet.
ASHE IN JOHANNESBURG runs through February 10th at Burning Coal Theatre. For more information visit: https://burningcoal.org/.