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The penultimate presentation in Burning Coal's 2018-19 season is a commissioned work by playwright Hannah Benitez titled Ashe in Johannesburg. The Ashe in question is American tennis great Arthur Ashe, the first African-American to break into the previously all-white elite of men's tennis professionals. Ashe's breaking of the color barrier came in 1968; while he was widely heralded as the first black man in professional tennis, he was not the first individual to make that grade. He was preceded for that honor by female athlete Althea Gibson, who, a generation earlier, had won three major tennis trophies, and who was very much on Arthur's mind when he made his trip to Johannesburg.
While there was a whole lot else going on in 1968, when Ashe beat Dutchman Tom Okker to win the US Open, it was a huge moment in tennis history. Ashe became an overnight celebrity, not only for his singular win, but also because he was a man who was, at all times, a gentleman – a tall, slender, soft-spoken man who won his victory with grace and humility. This was the Ashe way. Two years later, while Ashe was busy maintaining his ranking in professional tennis, he applied for a slot in the South African Open, which, while being a non-major event, is still a widely-recognized and widely-covered Open. His application was denied. This did not defeat Ashe; he simply continued to apply until, in 1973, he was granted access, and a slot in the tournament.
Now, history tells us that in Johannesburg, in 1973, Apartheid still held sway, and there was a furor around Ashe's attendance from both sides of the argument. There were those of the Apartheid movement who simply did not want another black man in their midst, especially one who could take the Open title from a white man. But there were also many on the other side, those who were Anti-Apartheid, who did not wish Ashe to attend either. Many felt he was a pawn of the movement; others felt he should align himself with the US boycott of the country of South Africa and stay away. These voices did not sway Ashe; his reasons for attending were his own, and he was not going to be argued out of his opportunity by either faction.
As the play begins, Arthur (played ably here by Joel Oramas) has just touched down in Johannesburg, with his personal reporter, Frank Deford (Steven Roten). Frank and Arthur move into their suite in the swank, downtown, usually-whites-only hotel, only to find that there are a great many people who wish to speak with them. Already tense, Frank reveals that he has obtained a gun from the concierge "for protection," because Frank does not want his story, or his friend, killed while this event takes place. But Ashe accepts his callers with his usual grace.
The first is a black University of Soweto student, Amahle (Maxine Eloi), who does everything in her power to persuade Ashe to return to America immediately. She uses several different arguments that Ashe has already heard, but her chief argument is that his presence hinders the Anti-Apartheid movement because of the spotlight it trains on the event. Neither of the two is persuaded by the other's viewpoint. The next batch of guests are also female, but they are there for a very different reason. They have been sent to Ashe's suite by the paparazzi, who wait outside the room with their cameras, in order to catch Ashe in an "indiscretion." Arthur and Frank secret them out a rear window.
Director Jerome Davis stages his play on a set dominated by movable platforms that resemble one side of the net on a tennis court. The cast moves these platforms to create each scene as the play unfolds. Playwright Benitez, while using the voices of dozens of characters, uses only seven actors to create these voices. Of these seven, only Ashe is played by a single actor. Everybody else plays a minimum of two characters, and sometimes up to seven. Even Roten, who has his hands full with Frank Deford, breaks for a brief, pivotal confrontation with Ashe on the merits of Apartheid as Dutch Professor Hanekom. What we experience, then, is very much what Ashe himself must have experienced: a wash of voices buzzing in his ears his entire trip. If we in America were experiencing the continuation of the color wars, this was a mild hiccup compared to what was happening in South Africa, as the Anti-Apartheid movement worked tirelessly, and often violently, to overthrow this oppressive regime. Ashe, in his own inimitable style, used his high-profile presence in the country in 1973 to add his own voice to the Anti-Apartheid movement.
While our hero is in town to play tennis, that task may be the easiest of the many he faces. He is hounded on both sides; his meals, his off-court appearances, and his very footsteps are dogged by one side or the other for his entire visit. He is confronted at one point by the constabulary, the Johannesburg Chief of Police (Jackie Markham), which also ends in stalemate. In the end, Ashe loses the tournament to Jimmy Connors, a loss he will avenge two years later in the finals at Wimbledon. But the final gathering in celebration of the tournament may have been Ashe's best moment. He is seated at a table with professor Hanekom. The man is very much in favor of the separation of the races, using it as an argument that it keeps each race pure. But Ashe is able to stop him with a single question. It is quintessential Ashe.
This ensemble work emphasizes the character of Ashe, but it could never succeed without all seven of the actors working as one well-oiled machine. Everyone onstage is in constant motion, making sure that each successive action is engineered as part of the whole. It is a massive construct, and each individual plays an important, indeed essential, role in bringing the entire process to a successful conclusion. From the stirring Zulu warrior dance that opens the show to the final thoughts of Ashe as he wings his way home, we are always aware of the intricate workings of the ensemble. This cast earned itself a standing ovation at the show's close for a thoroughly thought-provoking and well-executed production. Ashe in Johannesburg is a dynamic and entertaining piece of theatre that is well worth your time.
Ashe in Johannesburg continues through Sunday, February 10. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.