‘Man in the Ring’ Review — Floating Like a Butterfly, Stinging Like a Bee

Thomas J. Cox & Kamal Angelo Bolden

Credit Muhammad Ali for fusing boxing with poetry in his famous couplet: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.”

 

Ali was no Shakespeare, but “Man in the Ring,” a world premiere at Court Theatre, brings pure poetry to boxing. Inspired by the true story of six-time world champion boxer Emile Griffith (1938-2013), playwright Michael Cristofer has penned a lyric poem that goes beyond the world of prizefighting to take a one-two punch at subjects that include dementia and closeted homosexuality. Add to that some knockout performances and assured direction from Court Theatre’s artistic director, Charles Newell, and we have a winner in this corner of Hyde Park.

 

Allen Gilmore as Emile Griffith

“Man in the Ring” opens to the strains of “Brown Boy in the Ring,” a traditional Caribbean children’s song that reflects Griffith’s roots in the U.S. Virgin Islands. But instead of a boxing ring, the audience sees a ring of light circling a metal-framed bed. Leaning against the bed, lurching toward full-blown dementia, is the aging Emile Griffith (Allen Gilmore in an affecting performance), long ago sidelined by the repeated blows to his head that caused him leave boxing in 1977 after 19 years in the ring and more championship rounds than any other boxer, including Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali.

 

Sheldon Brown, Allen Gilmore, Kamal Angelo Bolden, Gabriel Ruiz

Emile’s caregiver, Luis, enters with a sneaker in his hand — he has found it in the refrigerator — and teases Emile out of his fragmented thoughts. Tenderly played by Gabriel Ruiz, Luis is more than a caregiver: he has been Emile’s partner for over 30 years, an arrangement that would have been taboo in the heyday of Griffith’s boxing career in the 1950s and 1960s.

 

Gabriel Ruiz, Allen Gilmore, Sheldon Brown, Kamal Angelo Bolden, Thomas J. Cox

“Man in the Ring” approaches the topic of sexual orientation from the side, with a left hook. The young Emile (a dynamite Kamal Angelo Bolden) presents a feathery pink pillbox he has designed to his mother (the formidable Jacqueline Williams). The hat floats in contrast to Bolden’s ripped torso.

 

Melanie Brezill & Kamal Angelo Bolden

These threads are tightly knotted together around the drama’s focal point, Griffith’s 1962 fight for the welterweight championship against Cuban boxer Benny Paret (Sheldon Brown, with a physique to match the role and an equally powerful singing voice). Paret, already battered from previous fights, taunted Griffith at the weigh-in with anti-gay slurs. In the 12th round of the match, Griffith delivered 23 uppercuts to Paret’s head, trapping him on the ropes. Paret collapsed in the ring and died 10 days later. His death changed Griffith forever, consuming the champion with guilt.

 

The fight scene — the cast rehearsed with legendary Chicago boxing trainer Sam Colonna — is as nuanced as the rest of the production, a ballet of punches glimpsed in strobe flashes. Poetry in motion.

 

Photos: Michael Brosilow

 

Man in the Ring

Through Oct. 16, 2016

Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago (free garage parking for evening performances)

Tickets $45­–$65 at Court Theatre or (773) 753-4472

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