Two young actors get ready to step into the ring of Sucker Punch

What’s my name? What’s my name, sucker?  In Houston, forty-five years ago last month, Muhammad Ali was carving up hapless, helpless Ernie Terrell, a heavyweight pretender who had insisted on calling Ali “Cassius Clay,” a name Ali had rejected. Ali was correcting this error at a rate of about thirty jabs a minute, turning Terrell’s face into hamburger. As God gave Adam dominion over the animals by allowing him to name them (see Genesis 2:19); so Ali asserted dominion over himself by naming himself, and dominion over those who would not recognize him by beating the hell out of them.

Ali fought for his name, but boxers have carried even heavier weights on their shoulders. Max Schmeling, a decent man and a good fighter, became the unwilling avatar of Aryan superiority during Hitler’s time, and so it fell upon Joe Lewis to point out the deficiencies in that theory, at two minutes and four seconds of the first round. The Nazis, who had hitherto treated Schmeling like a savior, shunned him after that – for which Schmeling always professed profound gratitude. If he had won, Schmeling reasoned, he might have been tried as a war criminal when the Third Reich fell.

(l-r) Emmanuel Brown (Troy), Sheldon Best (Leon), Lucas Beck (Tommy), and Christian Kelly-Sordelet (Associate Fight Choreographer) train at Chelsea Piers Sports Complex in New York City. (Photo courtesy of Study Theatre)

So the boxer, alone in the ring, carries our fears and expectations on his shoulders.  “Jig a boo,” sneers Tommy (Lucas Beck), the bigoted white fighter in Roy Williams’ Sucker Punch, now playing at Studio Theatre. Leon (Sheldon Best) answers him in the boxer’s language – punch first, talk later – and then, having the better punch, has the better line. “So, what was that then, Tommy?” he asks. “You ain’t losing to a black man? This black man here, this same black man who’s giving you a proper spanking, you, right now?” The words come out with the same concussive rhythm as the punches, and when Tommy goes down, it seems to be as much from the righteousness of Leon’s prose as from the blow that finally finishes him off.

The physical demands on the actors are immense. A fighter might lose ten pounds during a twelve-round match – most of it water; some of it blood. In Sucker Punch, set in London’s Brixton district in the early eighties, the actors are in constant motion, sparring, working the bag, jumping rope, shadowboxing. Fighting.

“He has a three-minute monologue where he is jumping rope the whole time,” Kate Robards, PR Apprentice at Studio Theatre, tells me wonderingly about Best as she lays down restorative sandwiches and enormous bottles of water for him and for Emmanuel Brown, who plays the boxer Troy.

Racial conflict abounds in Sucker Punch, but the most important dynamic is between Leon and Troy, two young delinquents, both black, who tried to burgle a decaying gym. The manager caught them, and as the play begins they are doing scutwork in lieu of facing the cops. But they develop during the course of the play, as boxers, as friends and as men, until a terrible thing happens during the Brixton riots. And everything changes.

Preparing to play boxers

Sheldon Best will play Leon (Photo: Studio Theatre)

“Sugar Ray Leonard, his body and the way that he moves, his footwork, the way he keeps his hands, his quickness and his speed.” Best is describing his role model for Leon, the slicker and more accommodating of the two characters. Best has a boxer’s body, rangy and loose-jointed, with big hands. (Profoundly muscular boxers – Mike Tyson was an exception – are usually at a disadvantage; the sport rewards quick hands and endurance more than brute strength.)  “And [in the way Leon boxes], you’ll see a little tip of the hat to Sugar Ray Leonard.”

“I watched a little bit of Tyson, because he has much more of a brawler-type style,” Manny Brown counters. Brown is somewhat more compact than Best, wiry and big-shouldered, and his character, Troy, burns with a Tysonian rage. “My character goes away to train with Thomas ‘Hit Man’ Hearns,” he points out, “so I had to watch some of his stuff, just to get on top of that.”

These two actorly choices may provide us with a way into the heart of the play. Leonard and Hearns, like Leon and Troy, were welterweights (147 lbs). And anyone old enough to remember their 1981 fight will never forget it: Leonard, like Leon, was an Olympic medalist with a quick wit and a cheerful, ingratiating manner. Hearns, impossibly tall for his weight, was a silent and lethal force. He was undefeated, with thirty knockouts in thirty-two fights; Leonard was 35-1, with his sole loss, to Roberto “Hands of Stone” Duran, avenged in the famous “no mas” fight. Like Leon and Troy, Leonard and Hearns had different ways of dealing with a world that was hostile, dangerous, and overwhelmingly white.

How hostile? Best points out that Sucker Punch takes place during a period when the “Sus laws” (section 4 of the Vagrancy Act of 1824) were maximally enforced. “They were essentially stop-and-frisk laws, and the police were allowed to stop people that they suspected – and largely this was black youths – of being involved in or about to commit a crime. So the tension really started building because this was happening a lot.  Then there were things like Operation Swamp….I think a thousand or so plainclothes police officers swamped Brixton, and stopped about 940 some-odd youths in the course of a few days….People saw that this was happening and they were like, ‘well, I didn’t do anything,’ and the other people in the community saw this happening and said, ‘what are you doing? Where are you taking them?’ And tension really started to build until it erupted” into the riots.

So how could Best and Brown transform themselves into men who would both be credible as world-class professional boxers and as men who could carry the dramatic weight that playwright Williams assigned to them? It helped that they were both superb athletes even before they began training. Brown is fresh off his Broadway debut as Electro in Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark ; and among other notable theater work he has been in the Broadway workshop of Bruce Lee: Journey to the West. As a dancer, he has performed at the NFL Super Bowl Pre-Game show, Madison Square Garden, and Shea Stadium.

Training for the roles

Emmanual Brown will play Troy (Photo: mannybrown.com)

“I’ve been training in martial arts since I was pretty young,” Brown explains casually. In Brooklyn, he teaches karate; a photo on his website shows him standing on his right leg, with his right hand grasping his left foot, which he has kicked over his head. Best calls him a “fight genius.” His natural weight is a little below the 147-pound welterweight limit, so “as soon as I found out I got the role, I said I wanna get bigger.”

He got to work. “I have been making conscious efforts to put on a little bit more muscle while at the same time trying to kind of shred up a little bit. So I certainly upped the amount of weight I’ve been lifting; I’ve been eating more foods that were valuable in building muscle and helping me to gain weight without getting fat.” He thinks for a bit. “I was told a while back that lots of chicken and fish and things like that will help, so immediately that intake started to up. I was eating fish for breakfast, having chicken for dinner, that sort of thing.”

Best’s breakout role was as Marcus Moon in Soul Samurai, the Qui Nguyen martial-arts mash-up. (You may recognize Nguyen as the author of Living Dead in Denmark, Rorschach’s zombies-meet-Hamlet farewell to its Georgetown University digs). “It was my first off-Broadway play. I had graduated from college maybe five, six months before. Hadn’t studied any stage combat in school.” He laughs. “Had done a little bit of stage combat in shows.  And I got the opportunity to audition for this play. At callbacks they taught us a bit of a fight sequence, and I landed the role – the roles, I played several roles in that show, Marcus Moon being one of them. And I was in, I would say, eleven, twelve, thirteen fights in this play, using everything from katana to springless sticks to tri-sector staff, just – I had all this great exposure under Qui Nguyen, who’s a fabulous choreographer…just got an opportunity to really dive headfirst into a lot of fight choreography, and that’s where I learned a lot, and I think I’ve been able to use a lot of that in subsequent shows.”

Once they were cast, it was more physical training for them. “When we trained with Gary [Starks, a boxer who served as the play’s fight consultant], it was at least two hours,” Brown explains. “But usually, on my own, I train about an hour, an hour and a half.” This was, of course, in addition to rehearsal time.

“A lot of cardio,” Best adds. “Running, jumping rope.  Some days I’d  do a shorter run, about, say, three miles, sometimes five, six, seven miles.”

They also did something that boxers don’t often do: they swam.

“It helps with breathing,” Best points out. “I have a lot of monologues where I have to speak and box, or jump rope at the same time. So it’s just to get a lot of great breath control, and I think swimming helps with that.”

It also helps make an athlete look like a boxer, Brown observes. “Gary told us that boxing is all in your shoulders, and swimming is great for building up your shoulders. You’ve seen those swimmers with their squared shoulders.” But for Brown, swimming was only one part of a dynamic training regimen.  “I probably swam a little bit more than [Best] did, but I mostly did a lot of lifting weights, and [I] hit the bag – obviously, that’s great for cardio, too, and helps with technique and all that sort of stuff.”

It is one thing to look like a boxer, but another to actually box. Sucker Punch has numerous fight scenes, including a match between Leon and Troy at the climax. Studio is an intimate space. How do they make it real?

“Communication,” says Brown, with Hit-Man style succinctness.

Best expands.  “And you know, we’re working with the best. Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly Sordelet who are fight director and assistant fight director respectively, Gary ‘the Kid’ Stark, who was our boxing consultant, and, you know, they really set up an atmosphere where we’re all in this together. We’re a family, we’re helping each other; we’re keeping each other safe, that’s the main thing, and trying to make this look good at the same time. And we communicate; if you get hit or you hit the other, we address it; there’s no shame. This is the kind of thing that can happen, we figure out how to keep each other safe and keep it moving.”

Staging the fights

But in a way boxing is the opposite of theater: stage fights are wild and woolly, with uppercuts and haymakers thrown from immense distances, with maximum affect. Think of the fight scene staged at Studio in Superior Donuts a few years back. But real boxing is almost entirely composed of short punches thrown with blinding hand speed; the idea is to prevent the opponent from seeing the punch, and as a consequence the audience often misses it too. How does the Sucker Punch team – Brown and Best, the Sordelets and Stark, and director Leah Gardiner – compromise these contradictory requirements?

“I think it’s less of a compromise and more of a marriage,” Best says.  “We take the training that we learned, we take the story we’re trying to tell, and we try to get those both to work in a way that works for the eye, for the person who’s watching, and seeing two boxers, but also works in order to tell the story…convincingly and not so fast that an audience can’t register that a punch has started to come. This quick little jab that came in, it still registers, but it also isn’t so big that people aren’t going ‘oh, that doesn’t look like boxing.’”

It requires, in short, precision timing.  The audience, Best says, has “to be able to register that a punch is coming, but not so much that they are getting ahead of the story. I feel like that if the audience gets ahead, you lose them, because then they say ‘I know what’s coming next.’”

Still, it all comes down to the acting

The physical precision required for the boxing scenes parallels, of course, the emotional precision the actors must summon for the rest of the play. Though Sucker Punch is about boxers, it is not about boxing. It is, instead, about the weight that two young warriors carry with them as they express themselves in the only forum permitted to them: the squared circle.

“There is a lot more going on in this play than boxing,” Brown says. “Boxing is, I would say, a mechanism to move the story forward. The story is about people. It’s about the characters and our relationships and if you don’t care about that, you’re not going to care about anything else. You’re not going to care about the boxing. It’s our characters and the background which really fuels the boxing, because the boxing you see in the show is between the characters….It’s not between somebody who’s in the story and somebody who’s completely removed from it. And there’s character background and things like that which fire the fight forward. So, you know, it’s really just a tool and it’s not about boxing.

“But the boxing,” he adds, “is – amazing.”

Sucker Punch is now scheduled to run thru April 8, 2012 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC.
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