Man in the Ring (Court Theater) — 10/5/16

Man in the Ring is not a musical, but while walking out of the theater I was not the only one humming “Brown Boy in the Ring.”  This children’s Calypso song provides a rhythmic thread that holds together the meandering thoughts of the dementia-suffering protagonist.

Michael Cristoffer’s world-premiere play at the Court Theater explores the tortured life of Emile Griffith, a boxer born in St. Thomas and blessed with the strength and speed to become international welterweight and middleweight champions in the early 1960’s.  He amassed a record of 85-24 before retiring in 1977.

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(left to right) Gabriel Ruiz, Allen Gilmore, Sheldon Brown, Kamal Angelo Bolden, and Thomas J. Cox.

The toll of so many punches to the head has rendered Griffith with dementia later in life, which is where Cristoffer begins.  The slow fade in reveals a 70-year-old Griffin (Allen Gilmore) sitting on his bed, holding an athletic shoe and humming “Brown Boy in the Ring,” not quite sure what to make of the object in his hand.*

Dementia is not a new subject in theater, and its exploration often involves characters transferring between flashbacks and real life with limited understanding of the divide between past and present.  However, Cristoffer’s script and Charles Newell’s direction finds originality within this trope largely because Griffith’s life, with its flash and color, provides such a fascinating story to tell.

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Thomas J. Cox and Kamal Angelo Bolden

The elderly Griffin watches his enthusiastic younger incantation (Kamal Angelo Brown) arrive in New York, eager to succeed as a baseball player.  He is boisterous and easily excitable and bulging with muscles as a result of the abusive physical labor that an aunt forced upon him while he was living under her supervision.  With a baseball bat in hand, he reunites with his exhausted mother, but the trainer he meets (Thomas J. Cox) through her is more interested in turning him into a boxer.  The speed with which the plot moves through these expository details while still laying the foundation for Griffith’s later demons is a credit to all aspects of this production.

Those with little knowledge or interest in boxing will find plenty to enjoy in Man in the Ring, for the boxing serves more as a focal point for the many contradictions that plague Griffith in later life.  Emotional arcs hit high notes first from Griffith’s disappointment that the father he never met refused to attend any of his matches and later from Griffith’s tortured relationship with his wife Sadie (Melanie Brezill) and his mother Emelda, who is played with particular depth by Jacqueline Williams.  Williams shows two sides to Emelda, who is apologetic about her failures as a mother at the same time that she exploits Griffith by pushing him to continue fighting despite his mild nature.

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Melanie Brezill and Kamal Angelo Bolden

Griffith’s bisexuality becomes more pronounced as his success enables him to express his flamboyance through his singing and dancing and clothing choices, which would be risqué today let alone in 1960.  The real-life Griffith’s sexual preferences were evidently well known during his prime but were never openly reported by the media.  Whether he felt shame for his homosexual acts is a question left open for the audience.  Prior to Griffin’s history-changing bout with Benny Paret (Sheldon Brown), the Cuban boxer taunted Griffith by using the Spanish slur for “faggot.”  During the subsequent nationally-televised fight, Griffith would proceed to hit a stunned Paret some 20 or 30 times in seven seconds—the punches connecting so rapidly that even with slow motion, analysts could not agree on the exact number.  Paret was left in a coma and died 10 days later—thus placing Griffith’s need to seek forgiveness for ending a man’s life at the pinnacle of his growing list of dramatic conflicts to work through in later life.

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Allen Gilmore surrounded by the cast.  Scenic design by John Culbert.

Throughout all of these emotional struggles, the actors continue to backdrop the action with Caribbean beats and the culminating version of “Brown Boy in the Ring,” a song whose simplicity helps Griffith remember the ambitions of his youth even as his mind fails to comprehend the gravity of his life.

*The lyrics of “Brown Boy in the Ring” (also sung as “Brown Girl in the Ring”):
There’s a brown boy in the ring
Tra la la la la
There’s a brown boy in the ring
Tra la la la la
There’s a brown boy in the ring
Tra la la la la
And he looks like a sugar in a plum
Plum plum

Man in the Ring (Court Theater) — 10/5/16

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