Emile Griffith is the sort of historical anomaly who should naturally inspire great dramas. Born poor on the Island of Saint Thomas in 1938, he was sexually abused by a male relative and abandoned by his mother when she became a sex worker—a development that so horrified him he pleaded for admittance to the local reformatory. At 15 he found his way to New York City and took a job in a hat factory, a natural fit as he’d been designing elaborate millinery for years. One hot day, so the legend goes, he asked for permission to work shirtless, and when the factory owner saw his rippling physique he ushered the teen to renowned boxing trainer Gil Clancy, who led Griffith to six world titles in two different weight classes.
He was also homosexual, or perhaps bi (in later years, Griffith admitted to both), frequenting Times Square gay bars in the late 1950s and ’60s. At a time when boxing held profound cultural sway in America and homosexuality was a crime in 49 states—and a psychiatric illness in all 50—Griffith’s open secret could no more be acknowledged than President John F. Kennedy’s womanizing. Even when Griffith was found French-kissing a man in his dressing room after a fight, nothing was said.
That is, not until March 24, 1962, during the weigh-in ceremony for the welterweight championship bout. Griffith’s opponent, Benny “Kid” Paret, taunted Griffith, calling him maricón (“faggot”) and simulating humping him from behind. Griffith nearly attacked him on the spot. That night, in round 12, Griffith unleashed an unholy barrage on Paret’s head—while Paret was already slumped on the ropes, his hands nearly at his sides—sending him into a coma. Ten days later Paret died. Unsurprisingly, Griffith never again fought with anything approaching his former ferocity, never again won by a knockout. After 337 world championship fights (69 more than Muhammad Ali), Griffith retired, then slowly descended into poverty and dementia.
Griffith’s life has already been the subject of at least two books and a documentary film. In 2013 playwright Michael Cristofer (best known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1977 drama The Shadow Box) wrote the libretto for jazz composer Terence Blanchard’s opera about Griffith’s life, Champion. Now Cristofer’s at it again, teaming up with Court Theatre to create a fractured, semipoetic, ultimately reductive take on Griffith’s saga. It opens with an elderly Griffith, played with searing vulnerability and disarming humor by Court regular Allen Gilmore, wondering not only where his missing shoe is but what shoes are for. As his long-suffering caretaker and lover, Luis, comes to his aid, the past begins to intrude on Griffith’s muddled mind, and Cristofer begins a two-hour highlights reel of Griffith’s life, with the elder man watching his younger self’s victories, missteps, and tragic mistakes.
Cristofer’s confident, concentrated writing—each episode from Griffith’s life feels like a flash point in memory—is often counterpointed with rhythmic chanting and singing from out-of-scene actors around the periphery of the stage. It’s hypnotic and often engrossing in director Charles Newell’s graceful, fluid staging, greatly aided by Keith Parham’s sculptural lighting. While Cristofer often spoon-feeds his audience—Griffith’s trainer expresses bewilderment that a hulking man makes women’s hats a half-dozen times before we’re expected to get the point—he creates a clear picture of Griffith’s ambition, charisma, torment, and ultimate dissolution.
But that clarity comes largely at the expense of complexity. For all the peripheral lyricism, both from the ensemble’s incantations and the elder Griffith’s tortured musings, Cristofer’s scenes contain little ambiguity or nuance; most tidily demonstrate a point or two, then evaporate so the next can do the same. He also simplifies a few facts unwisely. He has the factory owner become Griffith’s trainer, which strains credulity. And he makes Luis Griffith’s lover—which he may have been, but he was also Griffith’s adopted son. Still, the show delivers ample pathos and a host of riveting moments. Newell has done a masterful job keeping his cast reined in, allowing tiny gestures to speak volumes even when the script might invite grandiose emoting. While every performer shines, Kamal Angelo Bolden as the young Griffith mesmerizes for two hours. By turns childlike, sophisticated, tender, and menacing, he finds nuance where none seems to exist. It’s likely the performance of the season. v