The boxing ring as a metaphor for racial conflict, in fiction and in life, has been with us at least since the days of Jack Johnson, a century ago. Abram Hill's fight-game drama, first performed in 1944, manages to make its theme seem - some of the time, anyway - fresh; and that makes it all the more disappointing that, as a whole, it does not come off.
The protagonist is Andy Whitman (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith), a shoeshine boy plucked from obscurity when Mack (Mac McDonald), a second-rank boxing manager, observes him in a street fight. But to make the big time, Andy needs Lou Foster, a top promoter to whom Mac is in hock. Lou is a hoodlum who likes black people to know their place, and Andy is touchy on the subject of race.
There's nothing new in the basic set-up, but what is fresh is the effort Hill makes to move beyond the simple dialectic of exploiter and exploited. Andy is not some simple poor boy who white men are using to make money. He is clever and sassy - early on, when Mack starts sizing up his physique, Andy pulls back his lips with his fingers to show off his teeth, and at the first hint of stereotyping snaps back, "I ain't got rhythm in my eyes." He's taken a correspondence course in law, and isn't shy of demanding his rights.
In hindsight, the play seems like a prophecy of Muhammad Ali, another young black boxer who refused to stick to the rules. But Hill's dramatic technique was not up to his political thinking, and it seems that he did not know how to resolve the dilemmas he posed. Some of the scenes are far too long, and the direction of the moral argument is hard to follow.
Nicolas Kent's staging does not clarify this - characters charge through wordy speeches without any sure sense of what they are saying, and the way characters move around the stage is frequently at odds with the relationships implied by their dialogue. Still, it is easy to enjoy some salty, sub-Runyon dialogue and sparky acting - notably Carmen Munroe's down-to-earth grandmother, and Jenny Jules's middle-aged hula-hula dancer.
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