Dallas — The players at Bishop Arts Theatre Center are true servants to their craft; this cannot be argued or disputed. On opening night of The Champion, directed by Becki McDonald, one of the main cast members fell ill. Lorenzo Hunt, who was set to portray Christopher White, a character who spends almost every moment of the play on stage, was unable to perform Friday night, and so, his role was portrayed by the Bishop Arts Theatre Center’s Director of Marketing and Community Engagement, Adam Adolfo, reading from the script and interpreting each line impromptu on stage with the rest of the cast. As they say: “The show must go on.”
This sudden and monumental change in the show was certainly a distraction, but moreover, it was a testament to this cast’s commitment to the story and the artform, and the story they told was one that yearns to be told. Set in the early 1960s, Amy Evans’ The Champion finds the legendary Nina Simone and her band finding refuge from a snowstorm in a small-town café somewhere in the North Carolina countryside. It doesn’t take long for tempers to flare between them and the dark, pressing themes of Evans’ narrative are laid bare. The whole of the plot unfolds in a single room as the troupe waits for their train, called “The Champion,” to ferry them onto New York.
It is an arresting tale that details the experiences of Simone’s closest friends and colleagues—her bandmates—and how her struggles with mental illness (let alone being a black woman trying to navigate the tumultuous waters of mid-century America as an artist) came to affect them personally and professionally. Evans based the play on the stories and anecdotes she gathered through interviews with Al Schackman, Bobby Hamilton, and Christopher White, her guitarist, drummer, and bassist, respectively, and who are all represented in the play. Their grippingly personal accounts lend to captivating story-telling, but more importantly, an intimate look at topics ranging from how mental health has historically been addressed within the black community to the intricacies surrounding classism and identity between African-Americans.
The sweet and humble Theresa plays host to Simone and her retinue. Her uncle, who owns the dusty establishment, set out for supplies and was caught out in the storm, leaving her to run the shop. Portrayed by Cedisha Pitts, she is timid and a bit diffident, and as she takes the brunt of Simone’s brutally dynamic personality, her development is swift and not at all subtle. As a representative for the black youth of the age, she is painfully imbued with Simone’s rage over the present state of affairs and her hopes for the future. Though the events of this play take place a few years before Nina Simone writes her first Civil Rights song “Mississippi Goddam,” the song prompted by the death of Medgar Evers that would make her one of the most prominent voices of the Civil Rights Movement, we are given several glimpses into the singer’s pent up frustration.
Deontay Roaf delivers a crushing performance as Simone. Even when working with a stand in as her scene partner for much of the performance, Roaf exudes a pointed mixture of professionalism and artistry that is emblematic of the legend she portrays. It may seem rude to say that she plays crazy really well, but I don’t care. She is at once sensitive and harsh, swinging from moments of joviality and mirth to brash, and frankly bullish, attacks on her comrades and the poor, sweet Theresa. It is thrilling to watch her face down the imposing forces of prejudice and racism as she confronts two bigoted police officers, played by Brian Witkowicz and Nate Frederickson, who visit the establishment looking to wrongfully arrest one of her own. In an instant, Roaf delivers a persona that is proud and righteous, then suddenly wild with vulnerability and misguided rage.
Aiding Roaf with cool and calm collection is Justin White as Schackman. White’s interpretation is gracious and understanding, lending a deep-rooted lifeline to the singer in the moments where it’s most needed. He does well to capture the intimacy of Simone’s and Schackman’s friendship while tempering the uncomfortably poignant moments of the narrative with a level-headed sense of pragmatism. In addition, Lawrence Patterson’s Bobby Hamilton is just the right amount of humor and light-heartedness. He lifted some of the weight of the heavy material with effortless comic relief.
I would say that the experience of The Champion at Bishop Arts Theatre Centre is worthwhile, but it would be irresponsible of me as I cannot say for sure. With a very crucial cast member missing from this performance, I’m not sure how accurate of a portrayal I got to see. What I can say, with confidence, is that Amy Evans’ work, which debuted just over a year ago, is a gripping and challenging piece of art, and the cast at BATC is determined to do it justice. From what I could tell, these players are adamant about honoring the deeply controversial themes evoked in this narrative, and I can only imagine that, when at full force, this company does so ably and effectively.