By Ron Cohen
a taut, sometimes harrowing depiction of racism in America circa 1900, which
unfortunately still resonates powerfully today. It’s also inventive drama,
directed with élan and acted with incandescent fury.
a program note tells us, Marco Ramirez’s play is based on the life of Jack
Johnson, who in 1908 became the first African-American world heavyweight boxing
champion. Johnson was also the inspiration for The Great White Hope, the
1967 award-winning play by Howard Sackler, which centered in large part on his
relations with a white woman. The focal point for Ramirez is Johnson’s success
in getting James J. Jeffries, the retired world heavyweight champion who
refused to fight a black man during his career, back into the ring for what in
1910 was dubbed “The Fight of the Century.”
Ramirez’s scenario, the Johnson character -- called Jay Jackson -- lures
Jeffries -- renamed Bernard Bixby -- out of retirement and into a match for
the world heavyweight crown by agreeing to his demand for 90 percent of the
gate. Until this point, Jay carries the title of Negro heavyweight champion.
His need to challenge Bixby, he says, “ain’t about bein’ no heavyweight
champion of the White World. It’s about bein’ champion of the world,
play is so tightly written and the staging so stylized, it almost registers as
a parable, but nevertheless one with great dramatic impact. Carrying out the
staging detailed in Ramirez’s script, director Rachel Chavkin has imbued the
production with a breathtaking precision. This a play about boxing, in which
boxing matches happen, but no fight director is credited. The boxing is
depicted in almost ballet-like fashion, the punches suggested by stance,
isolated movement, hand clapping and foot-stomping against the wooden platform
that serves as the boxing ring. Important blows are punctuated by bursts of
sound and bright light. (The set is by Nick Vaughan, and the lighting and sound
by Austin R. Smith and Matt Hubbs, respectively.)
the same time, Chavkin has guided her actors into highly compelling
performances, allowing them to give both nuance as well as high-octane energy
to their characterizations. A likeable braggadocio frequently lightens the
impressive machismo of Khris Davis’ portrayal of Jay. And when his emotions
catch up with him, it is galvanizing.
Glover brings intelligence and depth to Jay’s concerned sister Nina, while
Clark Peters is a reassuring figure as Wynton, Jay’s coach. There are welcome
moments of humor from McKinley Belcher III as the amateur fighter with enough
talent to be hired as Jay’s sparring partner, while John Lavelle contributes
mightily to the momentum as Max, Jay’s fast-talking manager, also doubling as
the reporters at Jay’s press conference.
toxicity of the racism comes to the surface in many forms. There are blatant
questions put to Jay during a press conference: “Don‘t you think your people
have a predilection for fighting?” There’s the white Max trying to explain away
Bixby’s refusal to fight with a black man: “It ain’t like he’s a bigot, He’s
got no problem with ‘em, Likes ‘em fine, His driver’s a negro.” There
are the fears expressed by Jay’s sister of the violence that could erupt if Jackson should win over Bixby, and the violence that does indeed come. There’s the chilling
recollection by Wynton of an event staged for a group of “men in suits”-- an
entertainment called The Royale -- in which black boys would be blindfolded and
then box each other to bloody pulps. The reward to the last boy standing was
gathering the coins the men had thrown at them.
Jackson comes face to face with the original happening that spurred his need
to be victorious: an incident from his youth in which the soul-destroying
effect of being black in a white world takes nightmare form.
happens as Jay meets Bixby in the ring. But in Ramirez’ s strikingly original
climax, Bixby does not appear on stage. Jay Jackson is slugging it out with his
own personal demon, in an increasingly intense conclusion that could well leave you
on the edge of your seat .
at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse
West 65th Street
through May 1.