Boxing, that most primal if ritualized form of human conflict, has been the subject of countless plays and movies. And while I confess to being repelled by the real-life horror and brutality of the sport, its translation into theater is often thrilling and compulsively watchable.
‘MAN IN THE RING’
When: Through Oct. 16
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis
Tickets: $45 – $65
Run time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, with one intermission
The latest entry into the high-stakes competition for this fearsome roped-in stage is Michael Cristofer’s “Man in the Ring,” now in its world premiere at Court Theatre. It is a stunner — a fierce, poetic, profoundly tragic tale based on the true story of six-time world champion Emile Griffith. And it features volcanic but uncannily fluid direction by Charles Newell and his magnificent cast.
Cristofer, who won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for “The Shadow Box,” went on to work as a writer and director of films, and also has a long history as an actor (these days he may be best known for playing Phillip Price, the CEO of the sinister E Corp, in USA network’s “Mr. Robot” ). He initially dealt with the Griffith story in his libretto for “Champion,” an opera with music by Terence Blanchard that debuted in Missouri in 2013. This dramatic version (periodically infused with music and dance) has its own operatic quality, but it is the language — alternately feverish and playful, and notably economical — that sings most loudly here. And in a fall season already off to an impressive start, “Man in the Ring” is a stand-out — a show ready for Broadway in every way.
Both a memory play and a ghost story, the play begins in a facility where the elderly Griffith (Allen Gilmore), suffering from dementia, is tenderly cared for by his helper, Luis (Gabriel Luiz). Though mentally muddled, Griffith is just aware enough to remain haunted by the event that forever changed his life — his 1962 title match with Benny Paret (Sheldon Brown) at Madison Square Garden before which Paret made remarks about Griffith’s rumored homosexuality. Griffith (played in his prime by Kamal Angelo Bolden) ultimately won the bout by knockout, but Paret never recovered consciousness and died in the hospital 10 days later — a pyrrhic victory that would shadow him until his death in 2013 at the age of 75.
The heartbreaking nature of Griffith’s story unfolds like a fateful dance. When we first catch a glimpse of his youthful self he has just arrived in New York from his childhood home in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he showed great talent as a hat designer. Boyishly handsome, and with a glow of hope and a laughably cocky confidence, Griffith wants to become a major league baseball player and recording star. His domineering and rather ruthless single mother, Emelda (Jacqueline Williams), who settled in the city years earlier (having farmed out her seven babies back home) convinces him that boxing is a better road to success. And even though that kind of fighting is not in his nature, he soon is taken by a trainer, Howie (Thomas J. Cox), and begins to win important matches.
In many ways Griffith, who never had a father, was as much on a quest for love as for success. A free spirit in a world in which being gay was anathema, he defied convention — aware of the danger, but in need of the forbidden male embrace. He also loved women, and we watch as he joyfully seduces the guileless young dancer, Sadie (Melanie Brezill), who will long suffer from the desire that pulled him in another direction.
Newell’s staging has the quality of a dark dream in which the past unspools with exceptional vividness. Gilmore is astonishing as the fighter in old age still riddled with guilt for the life-altering outburst that should have been stopped by an official intervention. Bolden is a gloriously alive actor with the body and athletic prowess of a trained athlete, and his quicksilver shifts of mood and longing are pure magic to watch. He and Williams set the stage on fire in a scene in which Griffith finally stands up to her controlling, greedy nature. In a much later scene, Gilmore and Brown (as Paret’s grown-up son), work a very different kind of magic in another gorgeously written and realized scene.
Brezill (recently on Broadway in “The Book of Mormon”) brings her buoyant spirit and fine musical chops to the role of Sadie. And as Luis, Ruiz fully embodies the humane spirit and sweetness that, despite Griffith’s big dreams and beaming smile, so painfully eluded him throughout most of his life.