A Compelling And Intense
Life Story Of Emile Griffith
At The Huntington
Man In The Ring
By Michael Cristofer
Directed by Michael Greif
Through December 22
The Huntington Theatre Company
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
I was apprehensive when going to see Man In The Ring. The play by Michael Cristofer recounts the life of six time world boxing champion Emile Griffith. Mr. Cristofer had not even heard of Griffith until being asked to write the libretto for an opera about the former champ. That experience led to him writing the play. Given that, I thought this could turn out to be a real mess.
I felt there was so much he would get wrong. Boxing is a complicated, dark, and emotional sport. Emile Griffith’s life story is a complex one that is filled with many contradictions along with much success and terrible tragedy. There are a number of different parts of his life that could have dominated this work, but Mr. Cristofer has done a masterful job of giving us a complete and honest portrait of Griffith’s life.
The fact that Mr. Cristofer did not have previous knowledge of Emile Griffith has proven to be an asset when it comes to telling the story. He comes to it with a blank slate and gets all of it right. Along with writing theatre reviews, I have also been a boxing writer for a number of years, as well as having spent a lifetime around the sport. If anyone would be sitting in a theatre looking for flaws in the story it would be me. It turns out I would have to dig pretty deep to point out any mistakes here. I was very impressed, and I am not easily impressed by boxing dramatizations.
Emile Griffith is played by two actors. Kyle Vincent Terry is the young Emile while John Douglas Thompson is Griffith in his later years, when the effects of the punches he took have begun to appear in what was known as Dementia Pugilistica, today as CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). Both actors appear on the stage together throughout most of the play, with the older Emile looking back on his youthful self while reflecting on the choices he made. It is fascinating watching the story unfold in this manner. There are times when the two have exchanges.
John Douglas Thompson is among the finest stage actors performing today, and it is uncanny how he captures Griffith in the years when his mind is beginning to fade. In scenes that are both funny and tragic the effects of the dementia as it progresses are brought to the audience. One such moment occurs when Luis (Victor Almanzar), Emile’s lover and now caretaker brings him his shoe which ended up in the refrigerator. The exchange between the two is quite funny but also very sad.
Kyle Vincent Terry’s young Emile is filled with the positivity and optimism that was Griffith (“Always hang your hat higher than you can reach”). The magnificently built immigrant from St.Thomas arrived in New York City to join his mother. He decided to come to the States to make it as a baseball player and/or singer. He also had quite a knack for making lady’s hats. This led him to a job with a fellow named Howie Albert (Gordon Clapp), a once aspiring boxer who now runs a millenary business. He was immediately taken by Griffith’s physique and talked him into taking up boxing. Mr. Terry really impressed me as Emile. As they would say in boxing “You got what it takes kid’, and he sure does.
Boxing fans will notice the absence of Emile’s trainer Gil Clancy in the play. This is not an oversight, the author has rolled Clancy and Albert into one character. It works very well. Mr. Cristofer also, and I am not sure if this is intentional, shows how poorly Griffith was managed at the beginning of his career. Emile is what is known as a “survivor” in boxing. His was repeatedly thrown in with opponents who were far ahead of him in experience yet still managed to win. Albert didn’t develop a great fighter, he got lucky. Emile had incredible natural talent and a head for boxing. He was mostly self taught.
Griffith’s bisexuality was always an open secret in boxing and could have dominated this play. It certainly and rightly is a major part of the story, and Emile’s ambiguity about it is shown. His lifestyle was rarely if ever publicly discussed, that is until the weigh-in for his third fight with Welterweight Champion Benny “Kid” Paret (Sean Boyce Johnson). The scene is staged with an emotional intensity that reaches out to the back rows of the theater. Paret’s shouting “Maricon” (a Spanish slur for a gay man) at Emile caused the lighthearted challenger to lose his temper.
What occurs next is seared into the memories of older boxing fans. In the fight which was broadcast live on nationwide television, Griffith unleashed a vicious beating on Paret while knocking him senseless. Paret would die ten days later. I have read that an earlier production of this play had trouble staging this scene. Director Michael Grief along with fight directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet pull it off brilliantly. Using a revolving boxing ring, a tall projection screen showing footage from the actual fight, as well as using stop action effects with flash bulbs going off brings that terrible event vividly to life. Paret’s wife Lucia (Carla Martina), standing above and to the side of the action tells us what was going on with Benny before the fight. Lucia is joined by Emile’s mother Emelda (Krystal Joy Brown) and Paret’s manager Manuel Alfaro (Eliseo Gatta) in giving all the background that led up to this tragic outcome. They make it clear Paret never should have been in the ring that night. It is very, very powerful. Whether or not you are a boxing fan, you do not want to miss this.
There is music throughout the play. Caribbean children’s songs are sung by the actors accompanied by two musicians. It is not a musical, but the music is an integral part of the play, and just wonderful.
Man In The Ring is a complex work about a paradoxical man. Emile was a fun loving gentle man in the most violent of professions. A man who spent much time at gay bars while participating in the manliest of sports (this was at a time when being gay was equated with being a “sissie”). He was deeply effected by the death of Paret yet kept fighting for years after, though it was apparent he no longer fought with the same intensity.
As the play nears its conclusion we see Emile, now deeply suffering the effects of CTE, being brought to meet with Benny Paret’s son in a park. Emile is confused but the moment is touching. Young Paret, Luis, and Griffith are all involved in trying to make sense out of what happened.
As a boxing historian I found so much in this play. The accuracy is just stunning. Mr. Cristofer not only did incredible research, but he also understands the subject.This is very impressive for a boxing “civilian”.
As a play reviewer, I saw an amazing work of theatre. This can be called a boxing play, and boxing fans should definitely see it. It is an important piece of work that should be added to the great literature on boxing.
Beyond being a great boxing play, Man In The Ring is amazing theatre. It is impressive how much is covered in just 110 minutes. The entire cast and production team are nothing short of outstanding. It would be foolish to miss any work with John Douglas Thompson in it, but this work is solid from top to bottom.
You might think I am giving this high praise because of my boxing background. If anything, my knowledge of the subject would have been more likely to have caused me to go negative. The fact that Mr. Cristofer was able to impress me speaks very well to this play. I brought an extra critical eye to the Huntington on the evening I saw Man In The Ring. I can assure you, you will not be disappointed in this play. It is a great boxing story, it is a great human story, it is great theatre. I highly recommend Man In The Ring.