It would take an ambitious, forward-thinking theatre to capture British playwright Roy Williams’ unique blend of kitchen-sink drama and urban patois. Fortunately for all of us, the play found its way to Studio Theatre, whose sharp, well-realized production of Sucker Punch is another impressive production in an already-strong season.
Sucker Punch spans from 1981 to 1988, telling the story of two young black men, Leon and Troy, who spend their days training and working off a debt they first accrued when they broke into a local gym. As each man matures into a formidable boxing talent, they part ways, with Leon staying behind to contend with the vitriol of a racially-charged Britain as Troy tries his luck in the United States.
Sucker Punch is steeped in the 1980s, and for the most part the play successfully evokes the look and feel of the era. Cultural references abound, from “Conan the Barbarian” to “The Moonwalk.” But the most important part of Sucker Punch’s setting is its historical context: the play is set in the midst of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as prime minister, at a time when the “Sus Laws” essentially gave the police license to target young black men without due cause. Leon and Troy’s rage in the boxing ring is clearly fueled in part by their maltreatment by whites (and some blacks, who condemn them as “Uncle Toms” fighting for a white audience). It’s a stark, ugly, and necessary reminder of the overt racism in our not-too-distant past.
Ample credit for Sucker Punch’s successes must be given to its leading men, Sheldon Best and Emmanuel Brown, who carry the vast majority of the play’s weight on their shoulders. (Mr. Best’s performance is even more impressive in light of the fact that he spends the entirety of the play’s one hour and forty minutes on stage.) In an interview with my colleague Tim Treanor, Mr. Best and Mr. Brown described the preparation required for their roles in Sucker Punch, which included significant physical training – sometimes as much as two hours daily – in addition to the play’s standard rehearsal schedule. The time was well spent. Both men are in exceptionally good shape, delivering their many lines while shadowboxing, running in place, or doing push-ups – a ramped-up, theatrical version of the old challenge to pat your head while rubbing your stomach.
The wobbliest part of Sucker Punch comes in its broader strokes. As is clear from Sucker Punch, Williams’ chief strengths are in character and dialogue; though individual lines are generally sharp, Sucker Punch’s overarching plot dips at times into melodrama and cliché. Boxing trainer Charlie, though well-played by Sean Gormley, is just the latest in a long string of alcoholic, past-their-prime, “coulda been a contender”s on stage and screen. And Leon’s secret relationship with Charlie’s white daughter Becky (Dana Levanovsky) holds no surprises whatsoever; in fact, you can probably reconstruct the full arc of their romance with passable accuracy based solely on the information in this sentence. Outside of the friendship/rivalry between Leon and Troy, Sucker Punch’s most interesting relationship is the one between Leon and his father Squid, due in large part to the strength of Michael Rogers’ charming, slippery performance as the latter.
Sucker Punch’s most impressive moments, on both a dramatic and technical level, are its fights. Each of Sucker Punch’s bouts escalates in both plot significance and staging, with at least one new theatrical element added each time. Leon narrates his first fight alone on stage, shadowboxing under a spotlight, and it’s more than an hour into the play before he has an actual opponent on the stage. But Sucker Punch saves its actual staged boxing for its climatic bout, in which Leon and Troy finally go head-to-head in the ring years after they parted ways.
In less-capable hands, the final fight between Leon and Troy, which includes a series of exchanges performed by the actors in slow motion, could have been laughably corny. But this scene – which is a confluence of all the play’s best elements – is rightly its most powerful. The roar of the crowd and the impact of the punches ring loudly throughout the theatre; a rotating stage offers every conceivable angle on the fight; and Mr. Best and Mr. Brown fight with the full weight of everything that’s led them up to this point.
I won’t, of course, spoil the result of that climactic battle here. You’ll have to see Sucker Punch yourself to see which man stands and which man falls – and fortunately, the stellar lead performances, impressive choreography, and excellent staging give you more than enough reason to do so.
Sucker Punch runs thru April 8, 2012 in the Mead Theatre at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, DC.
by Roy Williams
Directed by Leah C. Gardiner
Fight Choreography by Rick Sordelet
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Scott Meslow
Running time: 1 hour and forty minutes with no intermission