THEATRICAL PREMIERE FOR "SUGAR RAY" BY LAURENCE HOLDER,
STARRING AUDELCO WINNER REGINALD L. WILSON.
Sugar Ray Robinson revisits his career and legacy in biographical play.
WHERE AND WHEN:
January 6 to 23, 2022
Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street (East Village)
Presented by 24 Bond Arts Center in association with Faith Steps Productions
Preview Jan. 6, opens Jan. 7, runs Thur through Sat at 8:00 PM plus matinees Sat and Sun at 3:00 PM.
Tickets $32 gen. Adm., $22 seniors & students
Buy tickets: https://tinyurl.com/4zmh57ff
Info: Gene Frankel Theatre 917-841-7567
Runs 1:15. Critics are invited on or after January 7 (opening date).
NEW YORK, December 17 – Sugar Ray Robinson was, pound for pound, the greatest boxer of all time. In his 25-year professional career, from 1940 to 1965, he was boxing history's first winner of five divisional championships (in the middle weight and welterweight divisions). This "King of Harlem" was renowned for his litheness, his power and his flamboyant lifestyle outside the ring. His career peaked between 1947 and 1950, before the era of TV boxing, so his style and legacy are less preserved today than those of other boxers, including his admirer, Muhammed Ali. That's why "Sugar Ray" by playwright Laurence Holder is so significant. It recaptures Robinson's life and boxing legacy in a biographical solo show that is exciting to those who idolized him and illuminating to those who grew up after his era. The play will have its theatrical premiere January 6 to 23, 2022 at Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, presented by 24 Bond Arts Center in association with Faith Steps Productions and performed by AUDELCO-winnner Reginald L. Wilson. The theater's playing area will be transformed into a boxing ring for the production. Luther D. Wells directs.
Wilson performed the show in New York once before, in 2016, in a site-specific dinner theater presentation at New Harlem Besame Restaurant at 2070 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. That location was the original home of Sugar Ray's bar/restaurant and business offices during the 50's and 60's. Directed by Woodie King Jr., the production received plaudits from the critics and was visited by notables including Ray Robinson II (the last surviving son of the famed boxer); Jimmy Hayes, a member of the vocal group The Persuasions; and Johnny Barnes,who played Sugar Ray in "The Raging Bull."
Mr. Wilson, an ex-Marine, has undergone a rigorous workout program to get himself into boxing shape for this production. In 2018, he performed a successful one-week workshop production in Tallahassee to test changing the style of the show from presentational, with Sugar Ray dressed in a pink suit, to storytelling, with Sugar Ray in the boxing ring wearing trunks, shoes and hand wraps.
Sugar Ray Robinson was born Walker Smith Jr. and got his first fight by circumventing the Amateur Athletic Union's age restriction by borrowing a birth certificate from his friend Ray Robinson. Subsequently he was told that he was "sweet as sugar" by a lady in the audience of a fight in Watertown, NY. He won the Golden Gloves featherweight championship in 1939 and its lightweight championship in 1940. Turning pro, he was World Welterweight Champion from 1946 to 1951 and added the World Middleweight crown the latter year. He retired in 1952, only to return to the ring two and a half years later and continued fighting way beyond his prime, until 1965, in a lifetime struggle to get out of IRS trouble (he never succeeded). He regained the middleweight crown in 1955 and held it, on and off, until 1959. He possessed a fine mind and physical talents, but his race was used against him, both in boxing and outside of it. He was cheated and out-negotiated on purses and embezzled in his outside businesses. Nevertheless, he maintained a stalwart integrity as a gladiator, once turning down a million dollar payoff from a mobster to throw a fight with "Raging Bull" Jake LaMotta. The sum would have settled his tax bill.
Robinson was the most charismatic athlete of his age and one of the most graceful and handsome men of any time. He was larger than life, idolized by millions of African American youths. He originated the modern sports entourage, traveling with a golf pro, a barber, an Arabian dwarf who spoke five languages, and his signature pink Cadillac convertible. Crowds gathered wherever he was parked. During his first retirement, from 1952 to 1955, he pursued a career as a dancer, opening at the French Casino in NYC for $15,000 a week. After that, showbiz was downhill for him. Sportswriter W.C. Heinz quoted a Broadway booking agent as saying, "Robinson was a good dancer, for a fighter. Maybe no other fighter danced as well, but the feature of his act was his change of clothes. He looked good in everything he put on." Nevertheless, "Sugar" was probably the first black athlete to establish himself as a celebrity outside sports. He was a fixture of the NYC social scene in the 40's and 50's and his glamorous restaurant, Sugar Ray's, was a destination for Broadway and Hollywood stars.
When Robinson re-entered the ring in '55, his physical discipline as a dancer facilitated his comeback by keeping him in condition. That and his outstanding abilities enabled his long career. He had an astonishing 200 career victories, about seven times the number of most of today's champions. He suffered one TKO, but was never knocked out. He could knock out an opponent with either fist while skipping backwards. Now as then, he is the standard by which all other fighters are measured.
Robinson's autobiography states that despite earning over $4 million in the ring and outside it, he was flat broke by the time of his final retirement in 1965. He owned most of the block on the west side of Seventh Avenue from 123rd to 124th Streets and he had $250,000 tied up in a five-story apartment house, Sugar Ray's Bar and Restaurant, Edna Mae's Lingerie Shop and Sugar Ray's Quality Cleaners with its five outlets. He sold all his properties after his retirement to pay down his tax bill. He did some TV and film acting in the 60s. Toward the end of his public life, in 1969, he founded the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation to serve inner city kids in Los Angeles. (Interestingly, it has no boxing program.) He died in 1989 of Alzheimer's Disease.
AUDELCO-winning actor Reginald L. Wilson was too young to witness "Sugar" in action. He has never been a boxer, but is an ex-marine and has studied martial arts. He bears a marked resemblance to the champion. They are almost identical in size: Robinson was 5' 11"; Wilson is 5' 10". They even have a similar vocal timbre and regional inflection. Robinson's family came to Harlem from Georgia; Wilson grew up in North Florida.
Mr. Wilson arrived in NYC in January of 2011 to intern with Woodie King Jr. and The New Federal Theatre and by 2012 had been awarded an AUDELCO Award (Lead Actor) for his performance as Levee in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which was presented by New Haarlem Arts Theatre (NHAT) at Aaron Davis Hall. The year before, he made his NY debut in NHAT's production of "Blues for Mister Charlie" by James Baldwin and was commended by Nytheatre.com for his "standout performance." He appeared as Jean in Strindberg's "Miss Julie," refashioned by August Strindberg Rep into a tale of the Antebellum South. He also appeared in "Stockholm Savings" by Matthew McNerny in NY Fringe Festival (Award: Outstanding Ensemble) and performed "Home" by Sam Art Williams, directed by Woodie King Jr., for Project One Voice in Detroit. In 2016, he starred in the One Man Show, Sugar Ray, by Laurence Holder, directed by Woodie King Jr., and he won his second Audelco Award for Best Solo Performance. Other New York credits include Assistant Director for the critically acclaimed remount of "A Soldier's Play" (which won three Audelco awards including Best Revival of a Play), "Black Angels Over Tuskegee," "Twisted," "Haiti's Children of God," "The Whistle In Mississippi," and "The Meeting." He directed "Dearly Departed," at Mars Hill University in North Carolina, appeared as Xavier in Dominique Morisseau's “Pipeline” in Portland, Oregon for The Portland Playhouse and Confrontation Theatre, and played Levi in Layon Gray’s "Cowboy, "which earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor on Broadway World Regional Awards. On TV, he has appeared in five episodes of "Celebrity Crime Files," "Redrum," "I Killed My BFF," "Celebrity Close Files," and two episodes of "My Dirty Little Secret." He holds a BA in Theatre from Florida A&M University, where he served as the University's Mascot, and an MFA in Theatre from University of Florida, where he won a Teaching Award for his class Improvisations in Theatre when Dealing with Social and Political Affairs. He has taught at City College of NY, where he revised the syllabus for Acting IV, "The Business of Acting."
Laurence Holder (Playwright) is author of such noted plays as "When the Chickens Came Home to Roost" (1976), which featured Kirk Kirksey as Elijak Muhammad and Denzel Washington in his first incarnation as Malcolm X. His "Zohra," featuring Phyllicia Rashad, presented by New Federal Theatre, earned seven AUDELCO Awards. He received AUDELCO nominations for "Man"with Kirk Kirksey, "Woman" with Judy Thames and "Hot Fingers" with Bruce Strickland. Other early plays include "Open" (1969), which earned him a position as Writing Instructor for New Federal Theatre Workshop, and "Bird of Paradise," which he self-produced in 1974. For La MaMa, he wrote "Juba" (1978), a dance musical directed by John Vaccarro in Ridiculous Theatrical style. All his other works are either realistic or biographical. His "Scott Joplin" was produced by Black Theatre Troupe, Phoenix, in the late 80's. Theater for the New City has presented debuts of his plays "Monk 'n Bud," "M: The Mandela Saga" (AUDELCO award for acting for Marjorie Johnson), "Ruby and Pearl" and "Red Channels." His plays have been presented in Europe, Asia and Africa. Mr. Holder has also written original plays about Barack Obama, George Bush II, Valaida Snow, Billie Holiday, Charlie Bird Parker, Langston Hughes, Max Roach, Nelson Algren, Simone deBeauvoir, Lenora Fulani, David Fagen, (the Army traitor who opposed the treatment of Black Phillipinos by the American troops in the Spanish American War), and Bussa, the African-born slave who led the first of three large-scale rebellions in the British West Indes that shook public faith in slavery in the early 19th century. Holder also created a TV show produced by the Department of Education for WNET/13 entitled "Watch Your Mouth." His work is available at AuthorHouse.com.
Director Luther D. Wells is from Miami, Florida and currently serves as Associate Director of Theatre at Florida A&M University (FAMU). He is a past President of the Black Theatre Network. He appeared with Reginald L. Wilson in New Haarlem Arts Theatre's 2012 AUDELCO-winning production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" (Wilson played Levee, Wells played Slow Drag). He earned the BS in Theatre from Florida A&M University and the MFA in Theatre from The Ohio State University. He worked as an actor, director and choreographer for the M Ensemble Theatre Company and the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center of Miami. His directing credits include "Hands Up!," "King Hedley II," "Little Shop of Horrors," "Radio Golf," "The Dumb Waiter," "Gem of the Ocean," "The Colored Museum," "The Color Purple," "Oedipus," "Beyond Therapy," "Blue," "Home," "Jitney," "Tartuffe," "Antigone," "Dreamgirls" and "Joe Turner’s Come and Gone." As an actor he has also appeared in "Harlem Heyday," "Roseleaf Tea," "Lysistrata," "A Raisin in the Sun," "Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act," "The Beggar’s Opera" and "Zooman and the Sign."
"Sugar Ray" will have set design by Patrice Davidson, lighting design by Lucky Gilbert Pearto; sound design by Thomas R. Gordon and Kimberly K. Harding; and costume design by Edith Carnley.
Gail Thacker, Artistic Director of 24 Bond Arts Center, a resident company of Gene Frankel Theatre, describes its purpose writing, "We are looking to give a home to artists that cultivate a theater that speaks not only of a socio-political change – but a personal change, the only truly manageable change that can lead to a new and better social, political, economic world. The work that has come from the Gene Frankel Theatre for the last seventy years has had civil rights and progressive thinking at its core."
"SUGAR RAY" SELECTED PRESS CLIPPINGS
FROM THE 2016 SITE-SPECIFIC PRODUCTION
NEW YORK TIMES (Ken Jaworowski)
"I've never formally met Reginald L. Wilson. But if I see him on the street, it will be tough not to give him a bro-hug. Indeed, even though he portrays a hard-hitting fighter in 'Sugar Ray,' this friendly actor exudes warmth, and that helps make a fairly good play quite a bit better….At the end of Mr. Holder’s script, we experience only a little sorrow for the champ, despite his constant money problems and his early death. That’s partly because seeing a life this full makes it easy to feel happy for Robinson, and partly because an actor this upbeat makes it hard to feel sad."
WOMAN AROUND TOWN (Alix Cohen)
"Riveting....The strong, sympathetic piece is wisely framed as if in Robinson's own words and stunningly brought to life by actor Reginald L. Wilson who works the room with grace, energy, charisma, and focus….Pacing is pitch perfect. Gestures feel natural, emotions credible….Bravo."
BLACK STAR NEWS (Deardre Schuller)
"Via his outstanding talent, actor Reginald L. Wilson, brought the one-man play alive with considerable verve, wit and humor."
NEW YORK BEACON (Ernece Kelly)
"a fascinating re-telling of Robinson's life. With few props--a boxer's satin robe, sparring gloves, and a bowler hat--Wilson takes us back to his beginning with Golden Glove victories all the way to the Madison Square Garden tribute to him in 1965 where he was dubbed 'The Greatest Fighter Ever.' Wilson, with his physical resemblance to Robinson and his exceptional limberness, is convincing as an embodiment of the man who insisted he was a 'gladiator.'"
AMSTERDAM NEWS (Linda Armstrong)
"Playwright Laurence Holder has lovingly, humorously and powerfully created a one-man show about the life of the champ….Wilson delivers a dynamite punch as he takes the audience on a journey through the life and times of Robinson….'Sugar Ray' is living history and something memorable to experience."
BERKSHIRE FINE ARTS (Susan Hall)
"Advanced footwork and punching power are brought from ring to stage in Reginald Wilson’s one man show as Sugar Ray Robinson….Even if you didn't enjoy boxing prior to this performance it was impossible to resist watching Wilson. He moved in a dedicated space across the front of the dining room with grace. Props are created in the mind's eye by Wilson. Only boxing gloves, the winner’s belt and a phone are palpable. With hands sketching other props and even a partner at dancing school, Wilson creates the boxing champ’s world over time….Laurence Holder has captured Sugar's lingo and rhythms. The biographical material does not shy away from Sugar's philandering heart or a detours into drugs. It honestly portrays an athlete who trained to peak performance and was a lively, contributing member of his community."
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Critics are invited on or after JANUARY 7 (opening date)