Playwright Laurence Holder’s Sugar Ray (Robinson) is clearly a labor of love. A portrait of the great boxer, the play not only describes his trajectory from inadvertent entry into the sport through two amateur and three professional championships, but also effectively sketches the man’s character, illuminating principles that drove and supported him.
The strong, sympathetic piece is wisely framed as if in Robinson’s own words and stunningly brought to life by actor Reginald L. Wilson who works the room with grace, energy, charisma, and focus. Director Woodie King, Jr. immerses his audience by having the actor not only come among us, but periodically address attendees with hypnotic in-your-face deliberation. Pacing is pitch perfect. Gestures feel natural, emotions credible.
“Now this is nice! This is what they did to my place!…Frank Sinatra used to sit there, Billy Eckstein there, and Sammy Davis Jr…”* Actor Reginald L. Wilson has us right out of the gate, bursting in like thoroughbred. “The first time I lost a fight,” he then begins, “The damn army was going to draft me…I was gonna fight Jake LaMotta (former World Middleweight Champion), a mean, misunderstood bull, but this time I didn’t train the way I usually do. I couldn’t find the river.” Both vernacular and poetry buoy and distinguish this script.
“But the money… We weren’t fighting for the championship, we were fighting to establish ourselves. We were gladiators…We fought until we couldn’t fight anymore. We fought because we couldn’t do anything else.” From the get-go we know who we’re dealing with and in what context.
Born Walker Smith Jr., the fighter took on his new name when, needing an on-the-road fill-in, the manager for whom he worked borrowed Amateur Athletic Union credentials from Ray Robinson. (A notorious womanizer, he was later deemed “sweet as sugar” acquiring the nickname.) The young man managed to hide the new vocation from his mother for $900.00 worth of $10.00 bouts.
As dramatized, mama overhears him arguing with his sister about $10.00 she purloined from the cashbox he hid in her room. “What money?!” his mother demands. “I’m fishin’, but there’s nothin’ there. I look at Marie (his sister). I ain’t getting no help from that corner.” Robinson was sure he’d get hit. Instead, his mother runs her hand over his face “feelin’ for hurts” and becomes his #1 fan. (A touching moment played with warmth and humor.)
Robinson could always move. He and his sister were sent to dance class and he later (when?!) took fencing. Fancy footwork, agility and especially the strength of one’s legs is vital to boxing. Wilson at one point tap dances a little and looks like he could execute a perfect jeté. The actor also punches with speed and precision.
We hear details about important fights: As a pro, Robinson was World Welterweight Champion 1946-1951, World Middleweight Champion in 1952, and, coming out of retirement, astonishingly regained that crown in 1955 holding it on and off till 1959. Bouts are recounted in appealingly personal terms with observations about opponents and where he was in his career, but one could do without ancillary statistics.
As a black man in his time, Robinson suffered bigotry and even embezzlement without recourse. Holder doesn’t make a lot of the former; a brief anecdote involving Walter Winchell brings it home. In a scene that feels palpably real, he famously turns down an offer of a million dollars to throw a fight with “Raging Bull” Jake LaMotta, despite badly needing the funds. Robinson was also, for some time, able to live large – in fact, well beyond his means, buying and gifting real estate and having his legendary pink Cadillac convertible shipped abroad for European tours. (He died flat broke.)
Three wives come into the picture with brief narrative that might successfully be expanded. Each is referred to with affection and some bite. There was nothing insecure about this man’s ego. Wilson manages to turn on a dime from intimate sharing to impassioned physicality. Robinson admits to innocently taking drugs from a doctor on one occasion and loses that fight. He speaks with sentimentality of a relationship with the just-beginning Cassius Clay (later Muhammed Ali) who wanted him to become Muslim.
We watch him walk away from the game “before I end up shinin’ shoes,” spend a little time dabbling in show biz to make ends meet, return for his crown, and be celebrated at Madison Square Garden. This last event is written and played with eloquence. Wilson even gets us to applaud in support of Robinson when appropriate. The story ends with sweet solemnity, no regrets. Sugar Ray Robinson descended into Alzheimer’s.
Sugar Ray is somewhat overly detailed for those not aficionados of the sport. Intermittent film clips and stills, though atmospheric, don’t illustrate enough. Dispense with them or acquire more. Despite these minor caveats, the evening is compelling, the performance riveting.
Sugar Ray deserves to be seen.
Reginald L. Wilson, apparently about the same size and with similar southern-inflected accent as Sugar Ray Robinson, is outstanding in this role. He bursts in like a firecracker, shifts moods with mercurial skill and never rushes, giving us a sense of real time storytelling. Wilson flirts with heat, laughs with abandon, stills with sincerity and exults in his character’s passion. Bravo.
*The site specific play takes place at New Harlem Besame Latino Soul Lounge which inhabits the spot where Robinson had his bar/restaurant and offices in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, the family restaurant and music venue has always displayed proud photos of the greatest boxer of all time. There’s a resonance to seeing it here and not in a legitimate theater.
Acknowledging the importance of living history, NYC’s Department of Transportation renamed the corner of 123rd St and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard Sugar Ray Way.
Performance Photos by Farnaz Taherimotlagh
Written by Laurence Holder
Featuring Reginald L. Wilson
Directed by Woodie King, Jr.
New Harlem Besame Latino Soul Lounge
2070 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd-corner of 124th St.
Performance admission includes prix fixe dinner afterwards
Extended through April 26, 2016.