David Sherman’s Joe Louis: An American Romance is the perfect event to kick-off Black History Month. Thematically and visually complex, the play explores the life of Joe Louis—the African-American heavyweight boxing champion of the world—through flashbacks, fictional scenes, and historical footage, to comment on the racial prejudice that still resonates today.
While the play is based on a true story, the author took many liberties with dialogue, time, and characters. This paradox—the union of true and false—is the first of many presented in this complex “romance.” The play begins with a feminist auditor (Cary Lawrence) visiting Old Joe Louis (Ardon Bess). As the two discuss the money that Louis has spent, and the back taxes he hasn’t paid, the life of Louis unfolds through dementia-induced flashbacks. The actors often share the boxing ring stage, shifting seamlessly from one time period to the next. These transitions are greatly aided by the lighting and sound effects that flood the stage with sepia colours of the past, or invoke the ambiance of a boxing match. Film is also used to illustrate the story of Louis’ life; historical footage of his fights are projected on stage by Young Joe (Samuel Platel), creating a layered and striking visual effect.
Bess brings honesty and energy to the extremely challenging role of Old Joe Louis. Arcing his performance beautifully, Bess gives us a character that at once makes the audience laugh and ache. Some of the best scenes are between Bess and Lawrence. Not only do the two bring a real intensity to the stage, but the themes at work are some of the most interesting; the conversations of a black man and a white woman broaden the racial questions of the play to prejudice against race and gender alike. As Young Joe, Platel is endearing and committed. Playing opposite him as Lena Horne, one of Louis’s wives, is McGill graduate Jessica B. Hill. When she comes on stage, it’s hard to ignore her presence, control, and detailed performance. The two younger actors are definite talent to look out for in the coming years. An incredibly capable chorus supports the entire cast; switching characters, accents, and costumes with skill, it’s a surprise to discover there are only four of them.
The biggest success of the play is the work of set designer James Lavoie. A boxing ring, on and around which the action takes place, fits itself elegantly into the beautiful venue of Le Bain St-Michel. This makeshift theatre adds another dimension to the performance; while the audience watches a play, they’re also watching a fight, both literally and thematically. This raises questions regarding the scenes of domestic violence in the play: What is the difference between watching a man hit his wife and watching a black man hit a white man? Or a feminist hit a black man? These are questions that the action of the play raises subtly, but artfully leaves up to the viewer to answer.
As the director suggests, Joe Louis “begs a dialogue about ongoing racism in our society.” And yet, with a play that places the struggle of Joe Louis at the forefront, one must ask: What does it mean, considering this play was written and directed by white men? Is this not one further step toward racial appropriation? While that thought certainly crossed my mind, I would suggest that nothing could be further from the truth. This play is a romance, pure and simple. Not one between individuals, but rather, between races. The play portrays Louis’s life as one that fought segregation and Jim Crow laws. It evocatively repeats the quote from sportswriter Jimmy Cannon: “Joe Louis is a credit to his race. The human race.” This is certainly a love story: a union of time and space, of sexism and racism, of white and black, and most importantly, of an extremely talented, multi-racial cast and creative team.
Joe Louis is playing at Le Bain St-Michel, Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. until Feb. 20. $15.