The spectacle of a once-great boxer now in his 40s, blind in one eye, going up against unworthy opponents in two-bit towns for crummy purses is not a happy one.
But this was part of Sam Langford’s life, and playwright/actor Jacob Sampson treats it with the same unremitting directness and compassion that he brings to the rest of the boxer’s story in his humdinger of a show, Chasing Champions: The Sam Langford Story, now at the National Arts Centre.
Sam who? you’re asking at this point. While insiders said he was the greatest fighter to ever enter the ring, to the outside world Langford was a virtual unknown. An early 20th century black boxer from the village of Weymouth, N.S., Langford was consumed by the dream of unseating Jack Johnson as the heavyweight champion of the world so that he – a black man in a white, racist world – would finally have the recognition he craved.
It was not to be, of course. But Langford’s all-out pursuit of his dream makes for a singularly compelling story in the hands of Sampson, who plays the boxer with equal parts heart and intelligence.
In a script that’s as trim as a fighter’s physique, Sampson encapsulates Langford’s story from the time he leaves his troubled home at 15, walking to Boston to become a pro boxer, until his impoverished but unbowed final days.
There’s even a scene involving a lecherous Pablo Picasso and insouciant George Bernard Shaw in Paris, where Langford was celebrated as a rising star of the ring.
Sampson’s strong fellow cast of Micha Cromwell, Marty Burt and Zach Faye play a cavalcade of other characters, from Langford’s wife Martha to his trainer and fight foes. Throughout the show, the hands of each are taped as a boxer’s are, underscoring the point that they, like all of us, have their own battles to wage.
Decked out as a boxing ring by set designer Garrett G. Barker, the thrust stage brings the action within feet of the audience, creating intimacy for Langford’s story. We witness up close the dazzling choreography of fight scenes (Ron Jenkins directs the show), including one where Langford takes on his unseen competitor and moves with such grace and power that even a non-fan admires the beauty of this vicious sport.
We also learn about the art of pugilism as Langford trains. Up against an opponent taller than you? Keep low and tight so you can take advantage of that. Need to avoid the other guy’s jabs? Use footwork to stay out of his reach.
It’s one more way we are drawn into Langford’s story and experience it from within his skin.
That story moves at the pace of a good match, with clanging bells, occasional vintage footage of fights, and frequent rapid-fire dialogue. While this ignites excitement, it’s also one of the show’s few weaknesses: as Langford flies through his early boxing career, we’re told about his victories with such speed that we can’t absorb it all and end up briefly feeling pummelled rather than engaged.
Sampson – an athlete himself – executes all this tirelessly, throwing in the occasional round of quick, effortless push-ups for good measure. This isn’t physical boasting on the part of the character or the actor but simply an expression of someone who lives through his body as much as his mind.
Skilled though he was, racism and the irony of being a boxer so good that others, including Johnson, were afraid to fight him prevented Langford from ever competing for the title of world heavyweight champion. That the fighter, for all his self-doubt and even self-hatred, maintained a sense of humour and personal honour through most of this keeps us rooting for him.
This is not hagiography nor is it Paul Simon’s lonely boxer, swearing he’ll hang up his gloves but unable to do so. The Langford that Sampson gives us seems born to fight – a birthright spurred by his father’s beatings — and that’s exactly what he does, never spotting an opponent he won’t take on even as he sinks into his inevitable decline.
Themes of resiliency, dignity and forgiveness – of others and of oneself — underpin the show. That we see those qualities embodied in someone whose name meant little to most of us before entering the theatre but who will now remain fixed in our memory is to Jacob Sampson’s credit.
Chasing Champions: The Sam Langford Story is a Ship’s Company (Parrsboro, N.S). production in association with Eastern Front Theatre (Halifax). In the Azrieli Studio until Nov. 24. The show was reviewed Thursday. Tickets: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca.