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A CurtainUp DC Review
Sucker Punch

“Somebody or nobody, make your choice.— Coach Charlie
Sucker Punch
Sheldon Best is a winner in Sucker Punch (Photo: Scott Suchman)
Sucker Punch is a knockout. This hard-hitting play by Roy Williams, a highly-regarded English writer and son of Jamaican immigrants, is now getting its US premiere at Washington’s Studio Theatre. Rough, tough and throwing plenty of hard jabs, Sucker Punch tells it like it is for Britain’s young blacks. This is London as it really is, or was in 1980, the time of the play’s setting. It is an antidote to the highly popular but no longer realistic refinement of tv’s Downton Abbey.

Two young English boys, Leon and Troy, who speak with the accents of their Caribbean-born parents, participate in petty crimes in their rough South London neighborhood. Their breaking into a boxing gym has life-changing consequences. Instead of being turned in to the police by the school’s down-on-his-luck Anglo-Irish owner/trainer Charlie, (Sean Gormley) the boys are told to mop the floor and clean the loo.

Ostensibly the play is about turning a wayward youth with the fighting fist of a street fighter into a champion boxer, but the real punch comes from the universal and timeless observations about race, luck, perseverance and ultimately betrayal. Who are the winners? Hard to say in an environment where deception and low blows are rampant.

What is clear is Williams’ take on race relations in Britain. Studio Theatre has thoughtfully included in its program a helpful short time-line of the history of immigration to the UK and the London riots of the 1980’s. (No mention of last year’s rampages by London’s black youth, however). It begins with the British Nationality Act of 1948 that entitled people from the Commonwealth to citizenship in the U.K., through the Thatcher years (1979 to 1990) of class and wealth warfare. Unemployment, jealous rages between immigrants and uneducated whites led to increased police action against blacks, overpopulated prisons, and anti-police riots. The divide between black and white, rich and poor continued to deepen during Margaret Thatcher’s three terms as Prime Minister.

The language Williams uses is pithy, sharp and often humorous. He is said to have Americanized some of the dialogue. However, there are still a few jokes that are lost on an American audience; for example, the reference to “a fine pair of Bristols” is short for “Bristol Cities” cockney rhyming slang which translates into “titties.” “Wog,” is a derogatory term for a foreigner with dark skin and “golliwog” a rag doll with black features.

Set designer Daniel Conway’s grungy gym that turns into a fancy boxing arena with a mylar backdrop works well as do Brian MacDevitt’s lighting and Kathleen Geldard’s costumes. Composer and sound designer Lindsay Jones’s reggae-like rock ‘n’ roll sets the right tone.

The movement involved in Sucker Punch has astounding veracity (although no one gets hurt) thanks to Fight Choreographer Rick Sordelet and Boxing Consultant, Gary “Kid” Stark, Jr. Not one to enjoy people hitting one another usually, I was somewhat dreading the inevitable physical sparring the play calls for; instead, I became completely caught up in the riveting mimed moves Sordelet created for his boxers, Sheldon Best as Leon and Emmanuel Brown as Troy. Both actors are excellent in their parts but it is Best who carries the show. He’s young, handsom, buff , endearing and totally believable. The image of his twisted face as he receives a perceived hard swing to his left jaw is with me still.

Best successfully takes his character from naughty school boy who gets caught throwing things to dude with the swagger and swag of a champ. He gets the accent right, too. His transformation, deftly handled by Director Leah C. Gardiner, is remarkable. So is Best’s performance. On stage for 90 minutes, he never lets up whether he’s learning how to down his opponent or bed the coach’s daughter. Remember the name: Sheldon Best. The guy’s a winner, so is Sucker Punch.

Sucker Punch by Roy Williams
Director, Leah C. Gardiner
Fight Choreographer, Rick Sordelet
Set Designer, Daniel Conway
Lighting Designer, Brian MacDevitt
Costume Designer, Kathleen Geldard
Composer and Sound Designer, Lindsay Jones
Cast: Sheldon Best (Leon); Emmanuel Brown (Troy); Sean Gormley (Charlie); Dana Levanovsky (Becky); Lucas Beck (Tommy); Michael Rogers (Squid); Lance Coadie Williams (Ray); Jude Tibeau (Bailiff).
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission. Performances, February 29 to April 8, 2012.
Studio Theatre, 1501 Fourteenth St., NW; Washington, DC; 202-232-7267;
Review by Susan Davidson based on March 3, 2012 performance.
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