THE CHAMPIONBy Amy Evans
Bishop Arts Theatre Center
Director – Rebecca McDonald
Lighting & Sound Designer – Jorge Flores
Stage Manager – Katelyn Kocher
Costume Designer – Nathan Scott
Executive Producer – Teresa Coleman
Frasier – Nate Frederickson
Christopher White – Lorenzo Hunt
Bobby Hamilton – Lawrence Patterson
Theresa – Cedisha Pitts
Nina Simone – Deontay “Dee” Roaf
Al Shackman – Justin White
McNeil – Brian Witkowicz
Reviewed Performance: 10/11/2018
Reviewed by Kathleen Morgan, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The show opened as a young woman rifled through a stack of records, placed one on the turntable, and silently began dancing in a dimly lit diner. This simple yet captivating ritual was carried out by Cedisha Pitts as Theresa, the diner’s sole waitress. I’ve always held that kind and sweet characters can be some of the most difficult to portray, as it often feels hard to “do anything” with them and their banal niceness. I’m happy to report that Pitts did more than “something” with Theresa- she brought both strength and vulnerability to life in this winsome character. The most powerful scene in the show was a heated exchange between Theresa and the celebrity, Nina Simone. Simone pushed Theresa, in an almost cruel way, to reveal her dreams and desires to a diner full of strangers. Pitts made the audience feel and absorb her discomfort, fear, and optimism all at the same time. Despite her evening with strangers that didn’t necessarily treat her with kindness, Pitts’ Theresa never lost her own quiet strength and dignity.
When Nina Simone (Deontay “Dee” Roaf) walked onto the stage, I instantly said to myself, “That’s her.” Her magnificent stage presence was perfectly fitting for so powerful a diva. Elegantly dressed in diamonds and black velvet, Roaf looked like a star. The audience was quickly led to believe that Simone was one of those rare, humble celebrities when she casually waved off Theresa’s astonishment at discovering Nina’s identity. However, little by little Simone’s prima donna (if not bi-polar) nature was revealed. Roaf expertly demonstrated this from the way she would tenderly speak to the waitress one moment, and then fly off the handle, accusing her of theft, the next. She would try to gain someone’s loyalty during one scene, and badmouth them in another. By the end of the show the audience was fully aware, if not also scared, of Simone’s powerful mood swings and flightiness. Despite her erratic behavior, Roaf still managed to portray Simone’s awesome star power that can’t help but draw people in, shortcomings or no.
Nina’s band mate and bassist, Christopher White, was played by Lorenzo Hunt. Confident, smooth, and charming, he was a laid-back foil to Nina’s tempestuousness. Hunt captured the air of a man who knows what he wants, isn’t afraid to get it, yet has enough common sense to know not to burn any bridges along the way. Though Nina was the de-facto ringleader, one had the feeling that Christopher White was more in charge than he was willing to let on. Though he could get into it with Nina, Hunt made sure that the audience knew she never got the best of him.
Al Shackman was portrayed by Justin White, Nina’s goofy and somewhat arrogant guitarist. Erupting into the flapping of arm-wings with Nina and making references to “Dooby” that went above the audience’s head, one quickly had the impression that Al and Nina were very close- although that closeness came into question later on in the show. Although White had great energy onstage, his stories often stopped and started, lacking a natural and relaxed flow. I was pleasantly surprised to find that White genuinely has skill with the guitar as we discover in one of the final scenes.
Arriving halfway through the show, Bobby Hamilton (Lawrence Patterson) provided much needed, subtle comic relief. Oblivious to the drama going on around him, Bobby frequently stated the obvious but won the audience over with his innocent naiveté. Unfortunately for him, he was the only one left in the room when two new strangers arrived- people who looked and sounded like they belonged in the Klan.
A rabble-rousing, out-and-out racist, McNeil (Brian Witkowicz) was the clear villain in The Champion. Arriving onstage with tremendous presence and energy, Witkowicz had the audience wondering what the inevitable clash this white southerner would no doubt bring to the show. And bring it he did! Accusing and nearly arresting one of the band members for a trumped-up charge, McNeil reminded Simone as well as the audience that her band mates were not the real enemies. McNeil’s sniveling lackey, Frasier (Nate Frederickson), immediately gave the impression of an unsavory man that you’d never want one of your female friends to cross paths with. Not a smooth talker like his boss McNeil, Frasier seemed to take glee in watching a certain demographic suffer. Though in the show for only a short time, Frederickson’s well-executed treachery was important to the play’s storyline in that it slowed (if not stopped) the divisions rising amongst Nina and her band. .
The Champion’s stage design was plain, but fitting. Spartan light fixtures reminiscent of ordinary diners hung from the ceiling. The tables were draped in countrified gingham, and chairs were stacked on tables to give the impression of closing hour. The lighting remained fairly consistent throughout the production but it served its purpose well.
The Champion was full to the brim with complex dialogue and rich character development. Despite a few moments of levity, the show’s overwhelming intensity caused audience members to laugh at inappropriate times which is often the case with plays exhibiting an over-abundance of drama. Nevertheless, the show triumphed in exploring this African American prima donna and how her star power and temper affected the nature of her relationships with others. Director Rebecca McDonald succeeded in demonstrating these complex relationships and conveying a serious atmosphere. I left Bishop Arts Theatre Center learning something new about Nina Simone, a real singer, pianist, songwriter, and activist during the Civil Rights movement. I’d encourage anyone who wants to take home a piece of our country’s history to check out The Champion and learn about this fascinating idol.
Bishop Arts Theatre Center
Fridays at 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday matinee at 3pm
Bishop Arts Theatre Center- 215 South Tyler St, Dallas, TX
To purchase tickets, visit the box office, or purchase online at the Bishop Arts https://bishopartstheatre.org/