Pacing arrogantly across a stage-filling Confederate flag at the outset of Arena Stage’s Coming of the Hurricane, a Reconstruction-era Southern “gentleman” uses a racist diatribe to tout a white boxer’s arrival in a small town near Antietam. “The Hurricane,” he drawls, “steps into the ring with God on his side, and the pride of the Confederacy on his shoulders.”

It’s the Great White Hype, unaltered by wartime defeat or federal edict. And once that massive flag has been sucked into a center-stage vortex, the stupidity it represents is countered by the solid muscularity of the former slaves who are playwright Keith Glover’s chief concern. No sooner has Crixus (Keith Randolph Smith), a scowling, barrel-chested black laborer, made his lumbering entrance than it’s obvious where the play must go.

A former “cutter,” forced by slavemasters to fight opponents to the death before the Civil War, Crixus is determined to stay out of the ring, but there’s never much doubt once hangers-on start debating the outcome of a possible fight that he’ll have to enter it, or that the results will be tragic. Glover plays out his epic battle in rounds of melodrama that are effective as far as they go, and vigorous in the playing at Arena. Smith commands the stage so utterly that it’s almost a surprise when other characters make an impression, but Linda Powell plays his girlfriend sensitively and with passion, while Damien Leake gives as good as he gets as a black fight promoter who thinks he knows how to deal with whites better than he actually does.

Marion McClinton’s staging is sure-footed and solid, which enhances the story’s sense of inevitability, even if it ultimately becomes something of a dramatic drawback. The author’s chief twist in the evening’s second half is to have the protagonist come to a grudging sort of respect for the skills of his Hurricane-force opponent (Bill Christ attired entirely in blazing white). That wasn’t enough to keep me from wondering why the climactic battle was going on so long, but it seemed to galvanize the opening-night audience. At evening’s end, it responded with a standing ovation.CP