Joe Louis: An American Romance – worth a ringside view

I’m not a huge sports fan. I traded in my hockey skates for jazz shoes at age five; my track ambitions ended when I slowly but surely came in last place at my high school track meet; and with my serious lack of hand-to-eye coordination, no one will dispute that I put the “bad” in badminton. So when I was offered tickets to see a play about the black American boxer Joe Louis, my heart wasn’t necessarily palpitating with excitement. But then I did a little research, talked to playwright David Sherman, saw the show, and realized this play is rooted in a much richer soil than just sports history. It’s rooted in racism, sexism, and the ability of one man to change the world.

The scene is set before the performance even begins; it’s set the moment you walk into Bain St-Michel. An old swimming pool that’s been converted into a theatre, the Bain St-Michel is a beautifully decrepit space. The old locker room is still intact and functions as the coat room. The bathroom is simply two stalls behind a lush velvet curtain, an aesthetically striking juxtaposition. The theatre itself is the shallow basin of the old pool. Instead of a stage, a boxing ring has been erected in the center of the basin, with church-basement chairs rising up in a sort of stadium seating on two opposite sides, so that the audience is mirroring each other.The preserved nature of the old athletic space is perfectly fitting for a play that takes place in a boxing ring.

The innovative set design also includes a stimulating multimedia perspective. Two large screens have been situated on each side of the boxing ring, opposite the audience, and at certain points during the show archival footage of Joe Louis fighting in some of his most famous matches are played. Actor Samuel Platel, who flawlessly plays the young Joe, boxes in the ring while Joe Louis simultaneously boxes on screen, adding an element of depth and realism.

The play begins with Ardon Bess as “old Joe,” laying on a gurney in the center of the boxing ring. As this is happening, both screens show this image from an overhead perspective, so that you’re watching the scene unfold from both angles. The play skips back and forth between the 1930’s—primarily 1938, as young Joe prepares for his rematch with Max Schmeling – and 1981, in the last few days of old Joe’s life as he’s working as a celebrity greeter at a Vegas casino, half deranged and addicted to coke.

Old Joe is mercilessly hounded by a female auditor from the IRS demanding Joe pay the astounding amount of money he owes in taxes, but does not possess. The female auditor, played by Cathy Lawrence, enables the play to push past race relations and explore the gender inequalities that were especially prominent in the early 1980’s. Cathy Lawrence does a fantastic job of portraying a character who desperately wants to succeed professionally, while suffocating in a glass terrarium.

Prominent figures from Joe’s past are resurrected in the ring, often as haunting hallucinations. Like Ray Charles would come to sing about some 20 years later, Joe Louis had many women “way over town” that were good to him – while concurrently married. As the play depicts, he loved women and women loved him. Jessica Hill, portraying Lena Horne, was a highlight of the play, conveying both tenderness and disgust with equal parts believability and grace.

Jack Johnson, played by Danny Blanco-Hall, is another prominent figure from Joe’s past, who appears throughout the play in a long trench coat and fedora – a stark contrast to Joe’s suit-and-tie image in more ways than just attire. As old Joe is forced to confront his present, he is simultaneously forced to confront his past, quite literally, as they appear around him in the ring.

With its 90 minutes time frame, and use of multimedia visuals, sound effects and levels, Joe Louis: An American Romance is conducive to short attentions spans and easily distracted minds. It leaves you contemplating the word “hero” and thinking about racism and sexism. It makes you realize the ability of one person to change the world, and how incredible a feat this was for a black man in the 1930’s.

The play continues its run at Bain St-Michel until February 20th. Don’t miss your chance to sit ringside and watch David Sherman’s interpretation of history unfold for the first time.

Click on the images to see the slideshow!

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Photos by Chris Zacchia

Old paper photo courtesy of:

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