Chicago Theatre Review
A Knockout of a Show
Sucker Punch – Victory Gardens Theatre
Victory Gardens’ 41st season opens with a real wallop. Roy Williams’ 2010 drama about young British black athletes struggling to achieve their dreams is now enjoying its Midwestern premiere. In this tense, testosterone-filled production, directed with finesse by Dexter Bullard, this gritty, very physical play captures the frustrations and shattered hopes and aspirations of three young men in 1980’s London. Racial tension, class distinction and ambitious goals drive these youngsters, along with their boxing coach, to dreams of a grand championship. Set against the backdrop of Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher’s iron grip, along with the aftermath of the famous Brixton race riots, the events of this play feel all too familiar. While Mr. Bullard has written a knockout period drama, a play that will strongly resonate with contemporary American audiences.
Set Designer Tom Burch has turned the Victory Gardens stage into a seedy, rundown boxing gym, lit with dramatic intensity by Lee Fiskness. Charlie has set his hopes on training Tommy, a young white boy, to become the next British Great White Hope in prizefighting. Accidentally he discovers that two young black youths, Leon and Troy, who are working at his arena doing community service, are every bit as talented as Tommy. When put to the test, Charlie finds Leon to be the better fighter, showing a great deal of promise. Complicating matters, especially with the ever increasing racial tension in London, Leon falls in love with Charlie’s feisty daughter, Becky. This near two-hour production, performed without intermission, grips its audience from its first punch and never lets go until the final knockout.
John Judd is extraordinary and powerful as Charlie, a man who’s been stretching his pennies to keep the gym and his dream alive. This actor brings grit and a ferocious drive that’s so necessary to this role; yet there’s much compassion for this middle-aged, working class man, with dreams of training the next Olympic champion. Leon, as portrayed by young Maurice Demus has charisma and charm to spare, while demonstrating some fine pugilistic skills. He evolves gradually into a boxing star whose lack of humility becomes his downfall. Denzel Love, as Troy, steadily journeys from goofy, teenaged prankster to a serious adult prizefighting contender. Tommy, as played by talented young Walter Briggs (so impressive in the Hypocrites’ “All Our Tragic”), is a sassy, cocky, bigoted young man who feels betrayed by Charlie when the coach’s loyalties shift to Leon. Lovely Taylor Blim holds her own in this male-dominated drama as Becky. Playing a smart, spirited young woman, torn between her father’s wishes and needs and her own heart, this young actress shows great promise. Hopefully audiences will be seeing much more of Ms. Blim in the near future. Kenn E. Head, a veteran of so many Chicago productions, brings his usual humor and likability to Leon’s Jamaican father, Squid. As Leon climbs the ladder of athletic success, Squid’s aspirations for a better life soars.
Staged with spunk and steadfastness by Dexter Bullard, and peppered with tender moments of spirit and humanity, this terrific drama brings all the sweat and drive of the boxing ring into the world of theatre, while also providing a powerful story about race and racism. With captivating, dynamic performances delivered by a talented cast, particularly John Judd, this strong production opens Victory Garden’s new season with a knockout of a show.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 18-October 18 by Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-871-3000 or by going to www.victorygardens.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.