Right place, wrong timing: In 1938, a friend of mine’s great-uncle saved his shekels and went to the, at that time, Fight of the Century — the Joe Louis/Max Schmeling rematch at Yankee Stadium. Along with an estimated 70,000 others, he wanted to see “the Brown Bomber” demolish the Aryan brute who floored Louis in 1936 and who symbolized all things Nazi.
Come fight time, the bell rings and Louis blazes, landing jabs and rocket rights. Schmeling goes down. Gets back up. “Gonna be a great bout,” the uncle thinks, why not make it perfect, with a good cigar? As he leans over to light up, he hears three dull cracks, like bullwhips on wet rawhide. The crowd explodes, stands, cheers. The uncle jumps up. Schmeling’s down. In the time it took to fire up his stogie, he missed the quickest TKO in heavyweight boxing history.
Steven Drukman’s In This Corner contends, a bit more often than need be, that history has missed something about Louis and Schmeling as well: the truth. The media turned each into an ideological icon, even though Schmeling detested Hitler (and sheltered two Jewish boys in his hotel from storm troopers); and Louis, once he stepped out of the ring, became yet another segregated African American who couldn’t have his picture taken with a white woman.
The play retells Pygmalion. Depression-choked America needs a hero, and a hero needs a villain. So the media engineers them, out of words (many of them alliterative, often racist, tags). Louis, a gentle man who stuttered and liked to speak his mind, becomes a fabrication: a white’s ideal black man. He can clobber opponents, preferably with fury, but can’t smile or gloat and must remain subservient. When he steps out of the ring for good and the media can no longer exploit him, Louis nosedives from celebrity like an Icarus.
For their first fight, Schmeling detected a flaw in his opponent’s technique: after a series of jabs, Louis would lower his left hand. Drukman’s world-premiere script also lowers its left: his characters exist more in theory, as verbal constructs meant to prove a point, than in depth.
The play shows us who they weren’t, but who were Louis and Schmeling? We never learn, for example, why his manager chose Louis (the first time we see him punch, he has zilch skills). Plus, didn’t Joe philander, a lot? And the conclusion, which never happened (Louis is in a psych ward; Schmeling comes to visit in 1970), is weak. The playwright substitutes a thesis, that losing can make one born again, for a theory. The two square off and do a slow parody of Rocky III, when the Italian Stallion goes toe-to-toe one last time with Apollo Creed, as the credits roll.
Druckman’s script has crisp dialogue and flashes of sharp writing (the ref does a set piece about order and chaos in boxing that’s a hoot) but could use more grounding. As if sensing this need, director Ethan McSweeny has drenched the Cassius Carter with atmosphere and detail. The stage is a boxing ring, a near-perfect fit, in fact: white canvas, frayed gold ropes, brown and black Everlast gloves dangling from turnbuckles. Four stations flank the squared circle, where actors watch, participate, and make practically unseen costume changes. Designer Lee Savage has raised the Carter’s floor three or four feet, to the same level as the audience. I’ve never seen actors’ heads that close to the ceiling before at the Carter. It makes the pugilists (even though their fight choreography’s pretty much by the numbers) loom almost larger than life.
McSweeny has an affinity for the Carter. He directed last year’s Body of Water, which turned the intimate theater-in-the-round into a shimmering blue dreamscape. Often during In This Corner, he creates a soundscape. The banter straight from The Front Page, the pace of workouts, and the distinctive clack of an Underwood typewriter often have the fluidity of music.
Joseph Louis Barrow was six foot two. Dion Graham, who plays him, not only has Louis’s height, he’s also got his eyes, at once fierce and quizzical, as if he sees double — and double standards. Graham, and a booming-voiced Rufus Collins, who plays Schmeling, fill in many of the script’s blanks with subsurface suggestions.
The play’s about Main Event headliners, but McSweeny and a talented supporting quintet make it an ensemble show. As a reporter and a promoter (roles he makes reversible), David Deblinger talks like Louis de Palma on steroids. Al White’s smooth trainer-manager percolates with low-grade malignity. John Keabler plays various sparring partners/Louis punching bags, for which roles he prepares with a brisk, half-hour preshow warm-up.
Katie Barrett, Craig Noel Award-winner for Mother Courage in 2006, demonstrates even more versatility as several different women, each sharply etched. Another Noel winner, T. Ryder Smith handles several assignments with skill. He cuts loose with the ref’s speech (“I make the KO okay”) and does the evening’s most dramatic sequence. Along with being about race and celebrity, In This Corner’s about pre-TV sports in America, in which words hyped, mediated, and at times mangled events. As an announcer, Smith calls the second Louis-Schmeling fight and shows that words could also describe indelibly. No one moves onstage. Instead we listen, to round one on the radio, and hear Louis’s genius combinations my friend’s great-uncle missed seven decades ago.
In This Corner, by Steven Druckman
Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park
Directed by Ethan McSweeny; cast: Dion Graham, Rufus Collins, T. Ryder Smith, Al White, David Deblinger, Katie Barrett, John Keabler; scenic design, Lee Savage; costumes, Tracy Christiansen; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Lindsay Jones; fight director, Steve Rankin
Playing through February 10; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.