In this corner, a man of contradictions
For the playwright, director, and actor Michael Cristofer, the boxing legend Emile Griffith was nothing if not a walking contradiction, full of the paradoxes and mutabilities of a human life. In an aggressively macho sport, the world champion Hall-of-Fame fighter was an anomaly. He lived a life of sexual ambiguity and acknowledged loving both men and women, but resisted being labeled. He dreamed of designing women’s hats and becoming a singer. He was also haunted for decades by the incident he became most famous for — the fatal beating of an opponent, Benny Paret, during a nationally televised boxing match in 1962.
“Emile was the sweetest, kindest guy, but he also had violence in him. There was a great sort of joy in everything he did, but there was also a great sadness in parts of his life,” says Cristofer. “He was a gay man in a violent, highly masculine sport. And his sexuality was completely contradictory in many ways. The great characters are the ones that have the most contradictions.”
All of that complexity is ripe for drama, Cristofer says, which led him to write the biographical play about Griffith, “Man in the Ring,” that’s being presented by the Huntington Theatre Company beginning Nov. 16 at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. The production stars the esteemed New York stage veteran John Douglas Thompson as Griffith in his later years as he’s struggling with pugilistic dementia and attempting to reconcile his life choices, while younger Emile is played by Kyle Vincent Terry.
When Cristofer was approached by an old friend, Stephen Albert of Chicago’s Court Theatre, about writing a play based on Griffith’s life, he leapt at the opportunity because he already had a huge head start. Indeed, he’d just penned the libretto for an opera about Griffith, “Champion,” by jazz trumpeter and film composer Terence Blanchard that premiered in St. Louis in 2013.
“I had enough material for a play that I couldn’t use for the libretto, which is only like 40 or 50 pages,” he says. “The opera world is also not used to a lot of these subjects — homophobia and gay bashing and dementia — and a lot of the language.”
Griffith, who was born in the US Virgin Islands and died in 2013 at the age of 75, lived a life filled with early trauma. His father had abandoned the family when Emile was young and he was sexually abused by an older man as a teenager.
Despite that turbulence, Cristofer wanted the play to reflect the man’s exuberance and joy. “If you look at the photos and the footage of Emile, his energy and his smile [were] infectious and with him constantly, which you can only admire in the face of what he was going through,” says Cristofer, whose eclectic career includes penning the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1977 play “The Shadow Box,” screenplays for the films “The Witches of Eastwick” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” directing movies including “Gia” (with Angelina Jolie), and acting in plays and television series such as “Mr. Robot.”
“Man in the Ring” explores Griffith’s upbringing in the Virgin Islands and his relationships with his mother, Emelda, his ex-wife, Sadie, his lover and caretaker, Luis, and his manager-promoter Howie (an amalgamation of real-life manager Howie Albert and legendary trainer Gil Clancy).
Musical elements and songs in the play trigger a flood of memories in older Emile and transport him to pivotal moments from his past as he tries to reconcile his life and its contradictions.
“His mind is wandering, and part of his wandering goes back to his childhood, and the music comes back to him,” Cristofer says. “I found a song that’s used in a children’s game, ‘Brown Boy in the Ring,’ and it couldn’t have been more appropriate for the story. So I began to investigate more of these children’s songs and games from his childhood growing up in the Caribbean.”
At the center of the play is Griffith’s infamous 1962 fight with Cuban boxer Paret for the welterweight title. Griffith’s bisexuality had been rumored for some time in the boxing world, but it was still taboo and not open for public discussion. But during the weigh-in for the fight, Paret lewdly taunted Griffith, called him maricón (a derogatory Spanish word for a gay man), and reportedly grabbed him.
“You can imagine what the pressure was like on somebody who was a star athlete and had a private life that was not allowed, not condoned, because nobody came out in those days,” Cristofer says. “It creates a powder keg inside a person.”
In the 12th round, Griffith, then 24, caught Paret against the ropes and unleashed a primal torrent of punches. Paret slumped to the canvas, slipped into a coma, and was rushed to the hospital. He would die 10 days later. Norman Mailer famously remarked that it was the hardest he had ever seen one man hit another.
While Paret’s death was accidental, Griffith admitted to having nightmares for years afterward. He continued to box professionally until 1977, but his knockout ratio diminished. Boxing aficionados observed that he was never the same fighter again, that he seemed to be afraid of seriously hurting his opponents.
“What the play suggests for me is that Emile’s grappling with his own sexual identity is in some way related to this accidental killing,” says director Michael Greif. “So that’s a large reason why he can’t reconcile that identity, because that identity is wrapped up in his action that he’s trying to recover from and be forgiven for throughout the play.”
Terry, who’s been training every day for months to get in shape to play young Emile, doesn’t want to shortchange the importance of the fight scenes. “The theatrical magic of the boxing and the choreography are going to be epic,” Terry says. “It’s intensely hard, and it looks as real as any staged fighting I’ve seen. There’s a real brutality to it. It’s definitely going to be memorable and drive the energy of the show.”
Cristofer has written other works, including the television films “Georgia O’Keeffe” and “Gia” (about fashion model Gia Carangi), that chronicled the lives of famous real-life outsiders pushing up against the social norms of their time. “In taking someone’s life and putting it on the stage or screen, you’re really telling something about yourself through that story,” he says. “It’s about yourself as much as it is about the other person.”
That can be said about “Man in the Ring,” too, and Cristofer acknowledges that he felt a strong connection to Griffith. “There’s something about the experience of his life that I connected with, about growing up in that same period in the ’50s and the ’60s in an environment that was not an easy one in which to discover your sexuality,” he says. “I grew up in a very macho Italian world that was not accepting of being gay, so I was dealing with homophobia and struggling with sexuality.”
For Thompson, it feels like Griffith is finally getting his due. “I didn’t want Emile Griffith’s life to be the footnote that he killed a man in the ring. Because we’re all greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” he says. “His felt like the unexamined life, and this play fixes that. We want his life to be celebrated.”
Man in the Ring
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Nov. 16-Dec. 22. Tickets from $25. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org