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Hannah Benitez’s Ashe in Johannesburg at Burning Coal Is a Smashing Theatrical Experience

Ashe in Johannesburg stars Joel Oramas as Arthur Ashe and Jackie Markham as Althea Gibson

Ashe in Johannesburg stars Joel Oramas as Arthur Ashe and Jackie Markham as Althea Gibson

Burning Coal Theatre Company, located in the Murphey School on Polk Street in Raleigh, NC, has been producing socially important productions for 22 years, under the artistic directorship of Jerome Davis. Davis recently commissioned Hannah Benitez, a rising star of playwriting, to reveal the events surrounding tennis champion Arthur Ashe’s visit to Johannesburg, South Africa in 1973.

The result, Ashe in Johannesburg, is a smashing theatrical experience. While this play is 90 minutes long, it goes by so fast that you almost feel you’ve missed something. But that is because every second is filled with fascinating and startling events that we seldom experience in America, bad as things are here.

From the opening moments, where we are almost assaulted by a ferocious war dance, choreographed by Avis Hatcher Puzzo, and on until Ashe and Frank Deford head off to return to America, we are affronted by the Apartheid that pervaded South Africa. This also reminds us how things had progressed Stateside since 1965.

A veritably bare stage, designed by Matthew Adelson, who also designed the lighting, becomes a variety of venues. From an airplane, to hotel room, to banquet setting, to tennis court, four movable risers support the action, sometimes with no furniture, and sometimes with cleverly fashioned boxes that become chairs, sofas, what-have-you.

Director Jerome Davis chose a great cast, who perform with high energy, broad emotional content, and sincere, distinct characterizations of numerous parts. Only Joel Oramas, who plays Ashe, has one role.

Oramas has a leg up on the role for a very good reason. Those of us who remember the first African-American man to win the U.S. Open Tennis Championship, our hero of racial equality, and who followed his life story to its end, see him easily in Oramas’ portrayal. His imagined scene with Althea Gibson brings back another great tennis champion who broke the color barrier.

Steve Roten stars as sports writer Frank DeFord in the world premiere of <em>Ashe in Johannesburg</em>

Steve Roten stars as sports writer Frank DeFord in the world premiere of <em>Ashe in Johannesburg</em>

Steve Roten stars as sports writer Frank DeFord in the world premiere of Ashe in Johannesburg

Steve Roten plays Frank Deford, the beloved PBS sports commentator, and editorialist of Sports Illustrated, as well as Hanekom, the Afrikaner Apartheidist. Roten took on these two diverse roles as two absolutely different people, including Hakekom’s Afrikaner accent.

All the other five actors also play multiple roles, portraying both black and white people, and males and females of ages as well. The actors manage to make all these arrays of parts come across as distinct, individual and authentic. Quite a set of tasks. Dialects for all the parts were guided by Rebecca Bossen.

Preston Campbell has seven roles, including light-heavyweight boxing champ Bob Foster and Ron Karenga, an African-American activist and a member of the white aristocracy. Maxine Eloi includes a Zulu Welcome Woman, a white male pupil and a white male policeman as part of her seven changes.

Juan Isler has among his four parts a man of color, an African tennis official, and a pilot. Jackie Markham is Althea Gibson, an African student at UCLA, and a white male chief of police within her seven roles. Natalia Soto has five roles in her bag of personages, among which are a white South African man, a journalist student at the University in Soweto, and a woman of color. And all these actors also are male Zulu Warriors in the war dances.

For those who believe in social justice, enjoy sports history, and good theater, this is the show for you.

<em>Ashe in Johannesburg</em> stars (from left) Joel Oramas, Jackie Markham, and Natalia Soto

Ashe in Johannesburg stars (from left) Joel Oramas, Jackie Markham, and Natalia Soto

SECOND OPINION: Jan. 23rd Durham, NC Indy Week preview by Byron Woods:; and Jan. 9th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC/91.5 FM interview with director Jerome Davis and et al., conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”: (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Jan. 25th Triangle Review review by Robert O’Connell, click

Burning Coal Theatre Company presents ASHE IN JOHANNESBURG at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 25 and 26, 2 p.m. Jan. 27, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 2 p.m. Feb. 3, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7-9, and 2 p.m. Feb. 10 in Murphey School Auditorium, 224 Polk St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27604.

TICKETS: $25 ($15 students, teachers, and active-duty military personnel and $20 seniors 65+), except “Pay-What-You-Can” Day on Sunday, Jan. 27th, $5 Student Rush Tickets (sold at the door, 5 minutes before curtain), $15 Thursdays, and $15 per person for groups of 10 or more.

BOX OFFICE: 919-834-4001 or

SHOW: and


2018-19 SEASON:



NOTE 1:The 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27th, show is a “Pay-What-You-Can” Performance.

NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 27th, performance.

NOTE 3: There will be a talkback with playwright Hannah Benitez, following the 7:30 p.m. Saturday, January 26th, performance.


Ashe in Johannesburg (play): (official web page).

Hannah Benitez (Miami, FL Cuban-Jewish-American playwright): (official website), (New Play Exchange page), and (Facebook page).

Jerome Davis (Raleigh, NC director and Burning Coal co-founder and artistic director): (Burning Coal bio) and (Facebook page).


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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Lead Story, Reviews