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Fisticuffs meet racism in Joe Louis romance

Byron Toben

February 2011

My father, Joe Louis Toben, was a contemporary of Joe Louis Barrow, the famous boxer, who, under his shortened name of Joe Louis, was world heavyweight champ for 12 years.

Dad, an admirer of the boxer, joked that the champ, whom he had never met, learned his style from him. So how could I not rush to the opening of Infinitheatre’s world premiere of David Sherman’s Joe Louis:An American Romance?

There have been few stage plays about boxers, such as Clifford Odets’ 1937 Golden Boy starring Luther Adler, son of all-time Yiddish actor Jacob (who was a boxer in Ukraine). Another is Howard Sackler’s 1967 Great White Hope with James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, who both won Tonys and, later, Oscars for the 1970 film version.

The Infinitheatre, an old bathhouse, features a boxing ring smack in the centre of the former swimming pool. Old Joe Louis is played by Ardon Bess; his younger self is Samuel Platel. The story is played out against the twin backgrounds of racial discrimination and the impending Second World War.

Since John L. Sullivan, the “Boston Strongboy,” became the first gloved heavyweight champ in 1885, five other white fisticuffers held the title until in-your-face, black Jack Johnson defeated Canadian Tommy Burns in 1908 to reign for seven years, leading racist fans to clamour for a Great White Hope. They never got one by a ring defeat but used a managerial dispute to strip Johnson of the title.

Eight more pale boxers followed, until Joe Louis took the belt in 1937 from James J. Braddock, the “Cinderella Man.” Joe Louis: An American Romance continues at the Bain St. Michel until Feb.20. 514-987-1774, ext.104.

During the First World War, while Jack Johnson was the world heavyweight boxing champion, a rude colonial lad from Canada became a legendary flying ace. William Avery Bishop is immortalized in Billy Bishop Goes To War, the 1978 Canadian Classic written and performed by John Grey with Eric Peterson.

This recent revival of a worldwide favourite is by the leading Soulpepper theatre of Toronto shows Billy as a senior citizen rummaging through memories.

The Segal Centre keeps topping itself one show after another and Billy’s deft and heartfelt story looks to follow in that tradition. Feb. 13 to 20. 514-739-7944



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