This Emile Griffith jazz opera strives to understand boxing and masculinity
Terence Blanchard asks, ‘What makes a man, a man?’ in ‘Champion’
The use of massive projection screens is one of the most remarkable things about Champion composer Terence Blanchard‘s opera about the life of boxer Emile Griffith, which debuted recently at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The screens, which flank either side of the stage, do more than provide a bridge into the world of film, where Blanchard has found a home crafting the sonic atmospheres of many of Spike Lee’s movies. And they don’t just help to establish Champion, with its heavy jazz influences, as a contemporary opera — a rarity when traditional operagoing audiences want and expect Verdi and Puccini and Mozart. No, the screens in Champion are central because they help the audience, who may not be familiar with Griffith’s story, understand how media not only shaped Griffith’s own story, but our understanding of it.
The opera tells the story of Griffith, a former welterweight and middleweight world champion from the U.S. Virgin Islands who gained notoriety in 1962 after his blows put an opponent, Benny Paret, in a coma. Paret died in the hospital 10 days later from his injuries. Underscoring the tragedy was the fact that Paret had taunted Griffith, who was gay, with anti-gay slurs. “Hey, maricón,” Paret apparently said it in a “cooing lisp” at a weigh-in before the two met in their third fight. “I’m gonna get you and your husband.” Maricón translates roughly to an anti-gay slur.
And because this took place in the days when boxing was still broadcast on network television in prime time, Paret’s fatal fall, after a savage round, was broadcast live into living rooms across the country. The fight, and Paret’s subsequent death, haunted Griffith for the remainder of his life.
The production originated with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2013, which commissioned it from Blanchard, a three-time Grammy Award-winning jazz trumpeter. With his first opera in the can, Blanchard is now working on his second, an adaptation of Charles Blow’s memoir Fire Shut Up In My Bones, which will likely debut in 2019.
The violence of Griffith’s story — “Paret’s head rocked on a neck that looked like a broken plinth” — presented a question: How would it be depicted onstage, in a way that would give audiences an understanding of Griffith’s complex talents as a boxer, with his incredible left jab and quick-moving hands? Griffith was said to have landed 17 punches in seven seconds in his fight with Paret.
Choreographer Seán Curran (Stomp, L’Etoile, Alcina) chose to slow things down in the pivotal fight of Griffith’s life. Onstage, the two men playing Griffith (Aubrey Allicock) and Paret (Victor Ryan Robinson) are isolated in spotlights, surrounded by a sea of red. The punches are drawn out so that the fight looks more like a dance, with the actors bending their bodies, Matrix-style, in response to each blow. The flashes of white light that capture the blows echo the flashes of photographers who documented the fight. You needn’t see the literal depiction of the violence in the ring, because, on either side of them, the screens flanking the stage show the real-life grisly imagery of Paret sliding down the ropes and out of consciousness.
By incorporating the actual footage of Paret, Champion underscores the role television and newspapers had in framing our understanding of what happened. The knockout Paret experienced on live television was responsible for boxing’s subsequent disappearance from TV and as a gathering place in popular culture. That even now fight night is still so often relegated to pay-per-view and premium cable is part of the legacy of the Paret-Griffith fight.
But the discrepancy between the fight occurring onstage and the imagery framing it serves another purpose as well: depicting the art and the beauty so many boxing fans see in the sport, even as the fatal violence of the fight became a political football in the aftermath. “I’ve been such a big fan of boxing and, to me, it’s one of the most misunderstood sports on the planet,” Blanchard said. “We try to have some elements [showing] the rigorous workout that goes into it, the science behind it. It’s not just guys up there whaling on each other and throwing their hands around and beating on each other. It’s not that. It’s really a scientific dance.”
Media didn’t just influence how Americans saw the Paret-Griffith fight. It determined how they perceived Griffith’s masculinity, and Paret’s taunting, as well. At the time, homosexuality was still so taboo that The New York Times dared not speak its name. In the 2005 documentary, Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story, journalist Pete Hamill described his colleague Howard M. Tuckner as “furious” when The New York Times’ copy desk changed the word “homosexual” to “unman” in Tuckner’s story about the weigh-in standoff.
Griffith is played by three actors. (That fact, along with Champion’s themes of homosexuality and black masculinity, are certain to attract rudimentary comparisons to recent Academy Award best picture winner Moonlight.) Arthur Woodcock portrays a hobbled, hunched-over, elderly Griffith, near the end of his life, whose brain is so addled by dementia that he doesn’t remember putting one of his shoes in the refrigerator. The story unfolds as a series of flashbacks from Griffith’s life, with Allicock playing Griffith as a young man and Samuel Grace playing Griffith as a boy growing up in the Virgin Islands. With his bell-like vocals, Grace exhibits a stunning vulnerability in his turn as Little Emile. It becomes clear that the adults around him realize Griffith is “different” when his surrogate mother, Cousin Blanche (Leah Hawkins), forces him to hold a cinder block above his head for hours because, Little Emile sings, “She say I have the devil deep inside of me.”
Through Curran’s choreography, Champion portrays Griffith as a figure who was repeatedly goaded into displays of aggression, which at the time were conflated with masculinity. When he first meets his manager, Howie Albert (Wayne Tigges), Griffith is a fairly subdued man, new to New York City, who wants to make hats. But Albert pushes Griffith’s buttons, hoping to unleash his “killer instinct” lurking within, and Griffith sends Albert careening to the floor.
“Throughout all of Emile’s journey — of course he got a lot of accolades and all of the great things that he deserved — he’s kind of just the pawn in the bigger structure of what this field was, or continues to be,” said Champion fight master Joe Isenberg. “And, he’s pushed to kill this guy. Of course, not intentionally, but it’s a part of this journey that he didn’t really intend to fall into, and then he continues a whole life of regret … dealing with that situation.”
Further complicating Griffith’s inner conflict is his tortured relationship with his birth mother, Emelda (Denyce Graves), who left him and his six brothers and sisters sprinkled among various caretakers in the Virgin Islands. When Griffith journeys to New York as an adult, his mother Emelda mistakes him for his brother, Frankie. While Griffith’s story is portrayed as an epic tragedy, Emelda is a tragic figure in her own right and in Champion, her relationship with Griffith is forever tainted by the fact that she left him.
“I know I’m not the mommy you want, but I’m all the mommy you got,” Emelda tells her son, who is still trying to outrun the specter of Paret’s death even after his success in the boxing ring climbs to greater and greater heights.
“You’re nobody’s mommy,” Griffith tells her, practically spitting the words in contempt. “You’re just a money-loving whore with a s–tload of children.”
Blanchard fills in Emelda’s story with two arias that provide some explanation for Emelda’s decision to leave her children, and the complicated feelings she has about it. And while Verdi and Puccini seemed to take an almost sadistic pleasure in pushing singers to the brink of their capabilities with vertiginous, superhuman upper-register runs, Blanchard brings forth revelations in plumbing the low end of the scale in Emelda’s second aria, allowing Graves to show off her range.
“She’s like Muhammad Ali,” Blanchard said of Graves. “You don’t want to teach your kid to box by watching Muhammad Ali, ’cause he always kept his hands down. She’s like that. She breaks all the rules. Her low register is impeccable. It’s amazing to listen to her sing.” There’s also a moment in Champion after Griffith defeats Paret and he’s standing over his opponent, both arms raised, seemingly not unlike the famed photograph of Ali standing in victory over Joe Frazier.
But alone, the triumphant pose belies what’s really taking place. In that moment, Griffith isn’t just a winner. He’s the little boy who grew up in the Virgin Islands, holding a cinder block over his head at the behest of Cousin Blanche. He’s the man Blanche and Albert goaded him into being, and what of it? His rival is conquered, defeated, dead. But so is part of Griffith. And the devil he’s been trying to shake still clings.
“What makes a man a man?” a forlorn Griffith asks of himself. “Who is this man who calls himself me?” Even by the end of the opera, it’s not clear that Griffith really knows.
Champion runs through March 18 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.