It’s not always possible to see every play. They are not complete on the page, certainly in contemporary theatre where plays can be more collaboratively made than ever before. However, this initiative (in its third year) encourages us (and hopefully others) to read more widely.And, as achieved in 2015, we shall try to choose 26 male playwrights and 26 female playwrights for our play choices. The plays from the first half of this year can be seen here.
Week 36: Roy Williams’ Sucker Punch (2010)
I remember an academic once claiming that the only contemporary comparison to the groundling experience at a Shakespeare play is the rowdy atmosphere of a football match. The thrill of sport combined with the thrill of live theatre is something often exploited by Roy Williams, notably in his plays Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads (2002), Joe Guy (2007), and There’s Only One Wayne Matthews (2007). While these plays use football as a cipher for exploring British society, William’s 2010 play, Sucker Punch, turns towards the world of boxing to scrutinise aspects of racial identity amidst Thatcherite Britain in the 1980’s.
We first meet young Leon and Troy arguing over the chores they’ve been ordered to do as punishment for breaking into a local boxing club. They soon catch the attention of Charlie, who decides to train them to fight. The play follows the two boys as they progress down different paths; Leon growing in stature as a serious UK boxing contender, while Troy compromises his talent as he rails against the police, eventually leaving Britain for a new life in the US.
The boys also embody diverse attitudes towards the prejudice and injustice they encounter on a daily basis; Troy is angry, lashing out against institutionalised racism, while Leon takes a more fatalistic view, longing to be accepted by his white trainer-cum-father-figure, Charlie, and Charlie’s daughter, Becky. Charlie is an interesting character, because there is a sense that he is genuinely affectionate and proud of Leon, yet he cannot hide his bigotry when he discovers the interracial relationship between Becky and Leon.
This is just one example of the casual racism that litters the play, alien to someone of my generation, but recent enough to shock. These attitudes and the subsequent backlash, such as the Brixton riots which Williams references, thoroughly evoke Thatcher’s Britain, highlighting the culture of social and racial division. What’s more, showing that these issues are just as apparent today, Sucker Punch premiered at the Royal Court just one year before the London riots in 2011, ignited by the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a young black man (and even more recently evidenced in the USA with the ongoing Black Lives Matter campaign against institutionalised racism). Yet, in more ways than one, Thatcher’s Britain comes under criticism. The 80’s culture of economic greed bites back as Charlie’s faith in ‘Maggie’ leads to his financial downfall, investing all the profits from Leon’s matches in the stock market (and we all know what happened there…).
What is perhaps most striking is Williams’ unflinching portrayal of the boxing world and how it is entwined with identity. Ironically, Troy’s anger and sense of racial identity culminates in his being scouted by a boxing promoter after a brawl with US police officers. However, it becomes increasingly obvious that the boys have little control over their own lives. They are owned; the imposing Ray tells Troy ‘I made you […] You are mine’, and Charlie manipulates his bigoted relationship with Leon for his own gain. He presents him with an ultimatum; he will become Leon’s manager, but only if he stops seeing Becky.
Furthermore, while seemingly embodying black empowerment by excelling in sport, Williams highlights the inevitable contradictions in the boxers’ roles. At the end of Act 1, Leon fights Charlie’s ex-pupil, Tommy, where the ‘white, pale faces […] cheering Tommy on, telling him to bury me’, demonstrate the way boxing, in its legitimised violence, can, in the worst cases, become a vicarious and legitimised outlet for racial hatred. Despite the two protagonists being set up as opposites, in character, attitude and philosophy, in one of the most elucidating passages, Leon’s father offers some home truths ahead of the climactic Leon vs. Troy match; ‘You can’t win, neither of you […] they love nothing better than to see two black men beat up on each other. They too afraid to do it themselves, so they get you to do it’. Racism is shown to be not only a casual aspect of 80’s culture, but a form of passive brutality in the form of spectator sport.
In this time of UKIP, Black Lives Matter, and the horrifying possibility of ‘President Trump’ the themes explored in Sucker Punch echo through the decades, presenting us with the bleak reality that racism and violence is perhaps even more of a pressing issue now than it was then - scarily so. While casual racism is now taboo, bigoted views manifest in ever more brutal ways, with no (justifiably sickening) joviality to hide behind, racism is unveiled and is more catastrophic and loathsome than ever.