Whoever dubbed prize fighting “the sweet science” had an interesting sense of humour.
The play Chasing Champions: The Sam Langford Story comes to the National Arts Centre’s Azrieli Studio true to its name. A native of Weymouth Falls, N.S., Sam Langford was a Boston-based black fighter in the Jim Crow era who, despite being one of the greatest pugilists to have ever lived, was denied championship opportunities because of the colour of his skin.
Chasing Champions, from the Halifax actor-playwright Jacob Sampson, begins with a retired Langford, blind and destitute, yet surprisingly cheerful in a Harlem boarding house. “Boxing gave me many things and took many things away from me, but it never took anything away from my mind,” Langford, played by Sampson, tells a visiting sportswriter. “Don’t nobody need to feel sorry for old Sam.”
To be charitable, we can call boxing the bittersweet science. As for feeling sorry for Langford, who died in 1956 after 69 years of hard times and high life, that is up to each of our discretion.
“That Sam didn’t end up sour or enraged at the world is something that I’ve been dealing with from the beginning of this project,” Sampson says over the phone. “I can only attribute it to a fighter’s spirit and the mental fortitude that people of colour at that time had to have.”
Produced by Nova Scotia’s Ship’s Company Theatre in association with Halifax’s Eastern Front Theatre, Chasing Champions is set in the first half of the 20th century. The play collected armloads of Robert Merritt Awards in 2017. It overlaps historically (and shares racial themes with) Marco Ramirez’s 2013 play The Royale, which just wrapped a successful run at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre.
The Royale is ostensibly based on the life of Jack Johnson, boxing’s first black heavyweight champion. It was on Dec. 26, 1908, that Johnson defeated the reigning world champion, Canadian Tommy Burns, in Sydney, Australia.
The ramifications of Johnson’s victory were complex. African-Americans were jubilant in the aftermath; others were not.
“I did extensive research into the weeks that followed Johnson’s win,” says Sampson, a native of Annapolis Valley, N.S., who studied theatre at Acadia University. “I can’t directly attribute everything to the outcome of that fight, but it’s highly likely that a number of black people died in the United States because of Johnson’s win.”
In Chasing Champions, the race riots and resulting deaths are laid out. “All because of someone reaching the height of their career,” Sampson says.
The other casualties of Johnson’s victory were the fellow black heavyweights who were denied their own chances at fighting for the title. Langford had fought and lost to Johnson before the latter was world champion, but he never got the chance to fight for the title in the years that followed because Johnson as champion could make more money (and take less risk of losing) by fighting inferior “Great White Hope” boxers. Later in his life, Johnson admitted he wanted no part in tangling with the talented Langford with his heavyweight title belt on the line.
“This story is about a man who made strides in a racially white world, but at the same time having to grit his teeth and bear some of the weight that people of colour had to bear,” Sampson says. “And we’re still seeing it today.”
One hundred and ten years after Johnson’s racially significant victory, socially conscious African-American athletes are being told to “shut up and play.” Not only did Langford play, he became blind by doing so. And the whole time, the game was rigged against him.
Chasing Champions: The Sam Langford Story runs Nov. 13 to 24 at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. (nac-cna.ca)