Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through Oct. 18
By ANNE SPISELMAN
British boxing dramas aren’t usually my cup of tea, but Roy Williams creates interesting characters in his 2010 “Sucker Punch,” and the Midwest premiere at Victory Gardens Theater is very well cast and directed by pull-no-punches Dexter Bullard. It also is compellingly acted.
True, the story of a promising young boxer with a troubled home life who is taken under the wing of a broken-down old coach desperate for one last chance at a winner is packed with clichés, but that doesn’t make the ups and downs, trials and tribulations, and especially the betrayals any less potent. In this case, the setting is the Brixton area of South London in the early 1980s, home to many African and Caribbean immigrants, and the racism both inside and outside the gym in the Thatcher era is pervasive. Indeed, it erupts into violent riots that cause a major rift between two black best mates.
We first see them as teenage boys in their school uniforms mopping the floors of the rundown gym—Tom Burch’s set, including a boxing ring, is terrific—as punishment for breaking in. Leon (Maurice Demus) just wants to get the job done; Troy (Denzel Love) is the born trouble-maker given to goofing off.
Charlie (John Judd), the ex-boxer with an alcohol problem who owns the gym, sees Leon practicing some boxing moves, recognizes his talent, and offers to train him. When his great white hope, Tommy (Walter Briggs, perfectly puffed up with self-confidence and resentment), deserts to another trainer/promoter, Leon becomes Charlie’s best chance of scoring a title. But Charlie disapproves of the romantic relationship that has grown between his lively daughter, Becky (Taylor Blim, delightful) and Leon, so he gives his protégé an ultimatum: either break it off or get out of my gym.
Leon, completely loyal to Charlie, his surrogate father, despite the rough treatment he receives, chooses a career. This leads to success in the ring and trappings like a brand-new car, but also increasing isolation and loneliness. Troy, furious that a frightened Leon deserted him in a time of need, calls him an Uncle Tom and goes off to America. His own father, Squid (Kenn E. Head, oozing sleazy charm), a Jamaican with an eye for the ladies, pretends support only to hit on him for money. The gym seems to be perpetually on the brink of closing even though Leon is winning big purses, and it is obvious to everyone but him that Charlie isn’t a good businessman.
Fast forward a few years, and Troy returns from America a top boxer for promoter Ray (André Teamer), who does have a head for business, not to mention an iron hand with his fighter, suggesting that Troy is no freer working for a black man than Leon is for a white one. A match is arranged between the two, and the stakes are incredibly high for Leon in every possible way, particularly because his efforts to reconnect with his former friend are rebuffed.
In an American movie like “Rocky” or “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” our hero would win against all odds. That’s not exactly what happens here, but the twist is what makes us feel all the more for Leon, who comes of age but is left wondering what to do next. We empathize because Demus’ performance is so good. Besides having the physical prowess that makes him believable as a boxer—watch him jump rope and deliver a speech at the same time—he navigates the emotional complexities with subtlety and aplomb, trying to make his way in a world in which it is almost impossible for a nice black man to survive, much less succeed, without inspiring hostility.
The other standout is Judd, who just keeps getting better and better every time I see him. His Charlie exudes such a complicated mix of anger, disappointment, incompetence, prejudice and self-loathing colored by good intentions and a certain basic decency that it’s easy to both dislike him intensely and have a certain grudging admiration for his efforts, even if they’re motivated by self interest.
“Sucker Punch” is only 100 minutes long (without an intermission), and it is time well spent if you want to meet at least one character you can genuinely care about.