NOVEMBER 29, 2018 – Call Emile Griffith’s famous 1962 championship win fighting Benny ‘The Kid’ Paret a tri-ethnic collaboration. As Gordon Clapp (who played the lead detective on the acclaimed “NYPD” television series) recently told the Journal, Howard Albert co-managed and promoted the black boxer with trainer Gil Clancy. In fact, the New England-based actor offered, “I think Gil actually said that Griffith was run by an Irishman [Clancy] and a Jew [Albert.]” Now Clapp is playing Howie Albert, the Jewish garmento turned manager-promoter, in Huntington Theatre Company’s Calderwood Pavilion area premiere of “Man in the Ring,” an award-winning 2016 Michael Cristofer drama that Clapp calls, “a poeticized version of Griffith’s life.”
Actually, Clapp explained, the play’s Albert is a composite of Howie and Gil. “I know that Michael has taken certain liberties,” he admitted. Still, Clapp considered the part of Albert to be “a great supporting role.”
“[Albert] ended up taking care of [Emile],” said Clapp. “The whole play framed around the day that Emile met Benny Paret, Jr. [Emile] basically tells his whole life story through his own memory.”
That play contrasts a younger Emile, who is a would-be hat designer, singer and baseball player, with the older Emile, who is a six-time champion boxer in welterweight, junior middleweight and middleweight classes. It also moves between the pressure for Young Emile to marry, and his ongoing love for eventual partner Luis, whom he would ‘adopt’ at a time when same-sex marriage was prohibited. At some moments, Young Emile embraces his sexuality with joy and acceptance; at others, he fears he is possessed by the devil. After Paret hurls a homophobic slur at Emile right before a Madison Square Garden match, Griffith pounds him during the 12th round. Paret dies ten days later. In fact, playwright Cristofer splits the legendary boxer into two roles: Emile and Young Emile. Clapp observed, “Sometimes [Howie’s] trying to guide Young Emile.”
Albert, who was inducted into the New Jersey, United States, and International Boxing Halls of Fame, stuck with his fighters, and Griffith was no exception. Clapp explained, “[Albert’s] taking care of him, but he has to be sort of cold in the way he does that.” That coldness involves Albert’s approach to Griffith’s sexual orientation. “Albert was in denial about Griffith’s sexuality,” said Clapp. “He said that part of his life could not be part of his boxing life. For Howie, in this world, a man is a man. He’s not intending to be cruel, but it’s a survivor thing.”
In addition to playing Albert, Clapp plays the announcer. Gifted actor John Douglas Thompson (Louis Armstrong in “Satchmo” and several title roles – Othello, for example – in Shakespearean tragedies) plays Emile, and Kyle Vincent Terry plays Young Emile. Victor Almanzar is Emile’s partner and caregiver Luis. Starla Benford plays Emile’s mother Emelda and Krystal Joy Brown his wife Sadie. Sean Boyce John has the role of rival boxer Paret. Richard Gatta has the silent role of referee Reuven ‘Ruby’ Goldstein, a past boxer who was once known as “Jewel of the Ghetto.” Michael Greif (“Rent,” “Dear Evan Hansen”) directs.
“Man in the Ring,” Huntington Theatre Company at Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Dec. 22. Bostonscene.com.