Naima Dawson is a published author, Chicago playwright, and professor. Her career accomplishments cover more than 20 years in Arts Entertainment. Her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and her Master of Education from DePaul University solidifies her ability to bridge the two worlds between Arts and Education. She is the writer and producer of Your Call! Late Night Improv & Sketch Comedy for Grown Folks, as seen in production at the Apollo Theater and The Mercury Theater.
Gabriel Ruiz, Allen Gilmore, Sheldon Brown, Kamal Angelo Bolden, and Thomas Cox in a scene from MAN IN RING at Court Theater. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Review: MAN IN THE RING at Court Theatre
By Naima Dawson
Court Theater lands a winning and fascinating production in Michael Cristofer’s new play, MAN IN THE RING, which manages to set the bar beyond unreachable in its skilled talent and superb storytelling.
Directed by Charles Newell, MAN IN THE RING unravels the story of six-time World Champion Welterweight and Middleweight boxer Emile Griffith, as he battles dementia and reconciling his past. Boxing is one of the world’s most masculine sports that has no tolerance for its members to live openly gay, especially during the late 1950s. This story hinges on one fight, against Benny “Kid” Paret, who slipped into a 10-day coma before succumbing to his death after being knocked out by Emile Griffith. Prior to the fight, during the weigh-in “The Kid” Paret was taunting Emile and questioning his sexuality. Many believed Emile took his anger out on Paret in the ring as retaliation. However, most questioned if Paret should have been allowed to fight, as he had just taken a brutal beating days prior. Many also blamed the referee for not stopping the fight sooner and Paret’s manager for even allowing him to fight knowing his condition. Benny Paret’s death proved to take a great toll on Griffith over the years, who actually considered Benny Paret to be a friend.
The play opens with a charismatic older Emile, ingeniously played by Allen Gilmore. Gilmore takes in every little nuance attached to an older boxer, who is battling both dementia and punch drunk syndrome. He is routinely confronted by memories from his past, as he traces all the pain that broke his spirit over the years. Gilmore’s use of levity in between compelling dramatic moments sparks a level of realism that forces the audience to feel compassion for everything Emilie Griffith had to endure over the years. Not being free to love who he so chose to love hardens Griffith. Beaten down by homophobia creates an old man filled with sadness and regret. Gilmore’s immeasurable talent was able to encapsulate this imagery for us on stage through songs, a saucy islander accent, dramatic moments of suffering, coupled with subtle moments of humor. He delivers a compelling depiction of a man who is both fragile and childlike in his older years.
Much applause has to be given to John Culbert (scenic design), Keith Parham (lighting design), Andre Pluess (sound design), Jacqueline Firkins (costume design) and Tommy Rapley (chorography), as they strategically created a minimalist setting anchored by strategic lighting and sound. This ballet between time and memory moves inside a ring of light in the center stage. The ring seems to be symbolic to the circle of life, the idea of self-reflection, and the quick footwork a boxer must master in order to survive, which seems to be applicable to surviving life in general.
As older Emilie moves us through his life we are immediately greeted by his younger self, played by Kamal Angelo Bolden. Wanting to be nothing more than a professional baseball player, singer, and make fashionable hats for women, younger Emile sets out to find his mother and make his dreams come true. He quickly discovers that life sometimes doesn’t go as planned. He’s quickly sucked into the boxing world because of his athletic build. However, upon the death of Benny “Kid” Paret. I’ve seen Bolden give notable performances over the years, but this production is his most compelling. He truly immersed himself into the character of younger Emilie. There is an unexplainable level of intensity in his performance that draws us deep into the storyline. Like Gilmore, we forget that Bolden is merely acting, as he delivers young Emile with great sincerity. It is safe to say Bolden’s performance in MAN IN THE RING will be talked about for some time, this is definitely his defining moment.
Together, Bolden and Gilmore ignite the stage with such precision, as they work in this call and response style of performance. The casting for this production incredible—each actor imperative to this story. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the performance of Gabriel Ruiz, who played Luis, Emile’s lover and later caretaker. Ruiz’s performance provided a compassionate link in warming our hearts to Emilie Griffith’s journey.
By the end of the play Allen Gilmore had men and women alike fighting back tears, until one woman could be heard crying, which gave those of us with the lump in our throat permission to release. This play makes us reflect about the human condition in a time where love and peace is much in need. I’m so in love with this play, and I know that is the most cliché thing to say, but this play will stick with me for a long time. Every actor in this play— Melanie Brezill, Sheldon Brown, Thomas Cox, Sean Michael Sullivan, and Jacqueline Williams—should be proud of the work they put in to make this one memorable performance.
I will return to see this play again. I do encourage everyone to go with friends and family by the end of the play you will not want to leave.