By Mary Houlihan | For the Sun-Times
The 1980s were a defining decade for British playwright Roy Williams, so it’s not surprising that he wrote a play set during that period, a time when racial tensions reached a boiling point in his homeland. As a black man born and raised in London, he saw certain things he didn’t want future generations to overlook.
That was the starting point for “Sucker Punch,” a drama that revolves around the world of boxing and says much about the broader ramifications of that era.
“I was 12 years old when the decade started, and I came out of it at the age of 21,” Williams said. “It was an important part of British history that I did not want to be forgotten, especially the experience of growing up black and British. My generation was born in this country, yet we were still made to feel, mostly by the British police, that our lives did not matter.”
‘SUCKER PUNCH’ When: To Oct. 18 Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Tickets: $15-$60 Info: (773) 871-3000; victorygardens.org
“Sucker Punch,” directed by Dexter Bullard, opens the season at Victory Gardens Theater. It’s set during a time in the ’80s when Britain’s simmering racial tensions boiled over into several confrontations between police and residents in Tottenham, North London. But none of the play’s scenes take place on these angry streets.
Instead, Williams transports the racial tensions to a boxing club where its owner Charlie (John Judd) has seen the potential in two young black fighters, Leon (Maurice Demus) and Troy (Denzel Love), who hope to change their situation in life via the boxing ring. Their white mentor is willing to help them achieve their goals as long as they stay away from his daughter Becky (Taylor Blim). The two friends are forced to make some tough decisions that will reverberate in years to come.
“Roy knows when it comes to race it’s a complicated conversation, and he’s not there to give a definitive answer,” Bullard says. “He’s out to reflect the entire conversation, to write everybody into the conversation.”
Williams, who as a youngster belonged to a boxing club, wasn’t interested in defining his characters as heroes or villains. He says, “Exploring the gray around them is more fun.”
“There was a lot of ‘Greed is Good’ attitude in the ’80s, and people were encouraged to behave like that,” Williams, 47, says. “And I very much wanted my characters to be caught up in it all. With the exception of Becky, who I feel is the moral heart of the play, they all do the dirty on each other somehow.”
Williams, the youngest of four boys, was born and raised in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood. He spent a lot of his time on his own reading (“It suited my character”). He worked a variety of jobs and at 25 received a playwriting degree from Rose Bruford College of Theatre & Performance. His first full-length play, “The No Boys Cricket Club,” premiered in 1996.
Williams credits playwright Barrie Keeffe, who in the ’70s and ’80s wrote a number of plays about the rough-and-tumble East End of London, as a “massive influence.” Why?
“Because I saw myself as well as my friends and my community in his work,” Williams explains. “He captured the voice of the young black and white working class at a time when we all felt we were being dismissed and not cared about.”
Williams now is one of Britain’s finest and most prolific playwrights. He produces about one play a year and says he loves everything about writing.
“The initial idea, the first draft, rewriting, then more rewriting, banging your head against a wall, all that,” Williams says. “Life inspires me. The things we do, the things we say. The way we contradict ourselves. The differences in what we believe in now as opposed what we stood for in the past. All of this intrigues me and keeps me going.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.