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The knockout return of this drama based on the life of Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion of the world
Sweat; graft; greed; the shadow of racism and the dream of something new: the boxing ring is a place where some of the biggest dramas of American identity have been fought out in 20 square feet. Marco Ramirez’s play – a hit at the Bush Theatre in 2015 –is inspired by the story of Jack Johnson who, in the Jim Crow era, became the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. Brilliantly, Madani Younis’s production is staged entirely in a boxing ring, where it goes six rounds with all of those big themes and more in a space that is utterly focused, physical and charged. It’s tough, lyrical and to the point – a knockout.
When the staging is so close and personal that you can practically hear a bead of sweat drop, you need a champ actor in the lead role. Nicholas Pinnock is superb as Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson. He dominates the ring, feinting, dancing about, trash-talking his opponents, manipulating his dodgy promoter into arranging the fight of the century, against the reigning white champ. There are shades of Muhammad Ali in the mind games Jackson wins.
His victory is essential, but there’s a mounting sense of sadness at its cost. A small cast of supporting characters including Jackson’s sparring partner interrupt his single-mindedness with news from the world outside, where his victories will be greeted with riots and race crimes. But this drama seems bigger than the whys and wherefores of one man’s fight – which is fought on the ground other fighters have won and lost, and whose victories may not last. The staging picks up on that beautifully. It’s very physical but often more like ballet than brawling, with sparring in slow motion and lines from the spit-and-sawdust dialogue coming back to haunt you. By the end, it’s less like watching a fist fight and more like an American dream with something nightmarish at its root.