By Jason Miller
Produced by American Century Theater
Reviewed by Janice Cane
(l to r) Elliott Moffitt and Morgan J. Hall (Photo: Jeffrey Bell)
That Championship Season is the theatrical manifestation of mediocrity, one of the key themes of this story about a high school basketball team reunion.
Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours—about as long as your average basketball game—That Championship Season feels much longer because, well, Coach (Elliott Moffitt) is yelling the whole time. Clearly that was his style back in 1952, when his team was in high school, but his tone is so loud and abrasive even when he spouts little bits of wisdom ("You all need each other. The days of going it alone are over."), it is a wonder the players responded so positively.
What’s also a wonder is that Coach can sustain such yelling. He recently had an ulcer removed, and Moffitt’s commitment to the character’s physical recovery is admirable – he shuffles slowly about Michael Switalski’s detailed set design of the coach’s shabby living room, barely lifting his feet and occasionally pausing for breath. So how can he shout nearly every line? And why would he want to? Director Ed Bishop could have drawn a more nuanced performance from Moffitt by toning it down, even slightly.
But the coach’s most notable characteristic is his rampant racism. This production of That Championship Season is unique and, ultimately, more confusing than insightful, because Bishop has cast five black actors in traditionally white roles.
In playwright Jason Miller’s original script, it is 1972, and Coach and his team—George Sikes, James Daley, Tom Daley and Phil Romeo—are five white men living in a small Pennsylvania town who harbor varying degrees of bigotry.
In this production, Coach, George, James, Tom and Phil are five black men living in a small town near Birmingham, Ala. ("If we pull together, we can make this the greatest little city in the country," as George’s mayoral campaign slogan goes), and they each harbor prejudices as well—against Jews, communists and others, but especially against other blacks ("As a rule, you can’t trust niggers," Coach advises). Even Phil takes heat for being "a half-white nigger."
Bishop’s goal is clearly to show that hatred has no regard for race, but Coach’s repeated use of vitriolic racial slurs just does not resonate as deeply as his general disappointment in life. He pleads with his championship team, "Don’t fall apart on me, because you boys are my real trophies." But what tarnished trophies they are, because they are falling apart—and not just physically, as Coach is constantly reminding them ("You’re in your thirties now. That’s heart attack season."). Their morals, self-respect and friendships are all dilapidated beyond repair.
George refuses to acknowledge that the town regards him as the village idiot, not a revolutionary mayor. His inflated self-importance has blinded him to the fact that Phil, a corrupt businessman, is having an affair with his wife. Meanwhile, James feels inferior because he’s just a junior high principal. He finally realizes that his political aspirations will lead him no further than being George’s campaign manager—and even that position falls through.
James’ brother Tom sees life most clearly, even through a haze of alcohol. His response to the letdown that is his life is the bottle—or, rather, bottles. Ultimately, this is a more honest response than that of his comrades, who opt for complete denial and self-loathing. This isn’t surprising for men who idolized a basketball coach who believes "you gotta hate to win." Coach is still telling George that every day, helping him run the city into the ground. George has become most like Coach, or perhaps it’s just that actor Morgan James Hall is most like Moffitt—always yelling.
Their yelling, however, is preferable to Ron Lincoln’s shallow performance. Lincoln barely scratches the surface of James’ despair, offering the audience an amused expression even in the play’s most serious moments. Omar A. Bah plays a more convincing Phil, who may lament being "just money" to people, but clearly enjoys that role, and his role as a sleazy womanizer.
Just as Tom is the most enlightened character, actor Joseph A. Mills III is the most convincing actor, even when he is reduced to a stumbling drunk. It’s easy for an actor to just play the clown in this sort of role, but Mills takes Tom to a deeper, more insightful level. Plus, his 1970s attire and afro are a nice contrast to his straightlaced, jacket-and-tie counterparts.
Director Bishop should be commended for exploring the ramifications of race already inherent in That Championship Season from such a different perspective, but his vision is not clearly communicated to the audience by these five actors.
(Running time: approximately 2:30 with 2 intermissions) That Championship Season will continue at Theater II, Gunston Arts, Center, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, VA 22206 through April 28. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., and 2:30 p.m. matinees on April 15, 21 and 28. Tickets are $23-$29. There are discounts are students, seniors and groups. Call 703.553.8782.