Immense credit needs be given to playwright/actor Jacob Sampson for his riveting, tour de force passion project, Chasing Champions: The Sam Langford Story. Produced by Eastern Front Theatre, Chasing Champions recently swept through Halifax’s Merritt Award Ceremony, nabbing an impressive six out of nine awards in its nominated categories. Sampson, who personally received Merritts for Best Lead Actor and Best New Play, deserves further praise for bringing to life a fully fleshed-out and developed piece of theatre which, once it gets on its feet, never slows down.
Written four years ago, Chasing Champions depicts the life of Sam Langford, the greatest fighter in history who, with a record of 256 fights and 180 wins, defies public knowledge or recognition; Sampson cites this as the motive behind his work, delving deep into Langford’s public and personal life. We first meet Langford as an old man, tracked down by a New York reporter determined to get Langford’s story out to the world; Sampson is immersed fully, seamlessly portraying his role with confidence and the due respect it deserves.
From this older version of Langford, we learn he hailed originally from a rural community in Weymouth, Nova Scotia. Driven away by an abusive father, Langford wandered from town to town in the early turn of the 20th century, blowing opportunities at odd logging jobs, and eventually finding his way to Massachusetts where he met future friend and boxing manager, Joe Woodman (affably portrayed by Marty Burt). The relationship between Langford and Burt is touching, and the two characters provide compelling, necessary counterparts. Sampson endows young Langford with eager bravado, bursting into the ring with the strength and speed of a train, craving some semblance of fame and fortune. In comparison, Burt infuses Woodman with wisdom, imparting his experience unto Langford, thus harnessing and fortifying his prodigy’s raw, natural skill into the stuff of legends. From a historical standpoint, this partnership turned out to be successful; Langford shot to immediate success, winning fights and gaining intimidating monikers such as “The Boston Bonecrusher,” “The Boston Bulldog,” and his justifiably least favourite, “Boston Tar Baby.”
With each boxing victory, Langford pummelled his way from the lightweight division to heavyweight, aching for a chance to take on the greats. On his rise to power, Sampson infuses Langford with increased confidence, often bordering on the point of hubris. He ends up meeting his future wife Martha (played with gumption by Micha Cromwell) and in time also becomes a father; but the hard truth of Chasing Champions is that Langford’s interest is not in settling down to become a family man. As we see in countless high energy, on-stage boxing matches, Langford can’t and won’t stop until he’s regarded as the best, regardless of any physical price exacted upon him as a result.
Langford’s unrelenting drive, compounded by the time’s prevalent and overt racist attitudes, is what makes Chasing Champions hard-hitting and unforgettable. The stage, designed as both a literal and figurative boxing ring also features a background video screen, periodically projecting real life footage, enhancing the overall performances and messages. It’s horrifying and chilling to see onscreen the violent details perpetrated by racial anger in response to victories of black athletes disrupting the status quo. As Woodman gets Langford fights on both American and European stages, the air of white racial superiority hangs heavy in the air and it is a righteous thrill to see Sampson’s protagonist smash down the barriers and naysayers. Yet, it is Langford’s ongoing pursuit to fight Jack Johnson, history’s first African American World Heavyweight Champion, that is so mesmerizing and thought-provoking. Having lost once already to Johnson in the past, Johnson is Langford’s truest Goliath in the show’s duration; Langford craves and does everything in his power for a shot at redemption only to be denied by Johnson every time. The result is downright infuriating for Langford, and the racial hypocrisy of his opponent’s decision to deny him a fight only stokes undying fire. Sampson injects the show with needed anger; he refuses to accept the seemingly impossible, which in turn sabotages his character’s already uneven future.
Playing until April 30th, Chasing Champions is a show that we need more of in theatre; for all of the adrenaline-pumped fight scenes (with rivals and disbelievers played by a versatile Zach Faye), societal tension and hardship, there is tremendous heart, humour, and fragility to be discovered within. Jacob Sampson’s work will draw you into a deeply and beautifully-spun story which never feels cliché or overdone. Featuring apt and memorable performances by its ensemble cast and well-directed by Ron Jenkins, Chasing Champions does Sam Langford justice. It is a hard-hitting show that stays with you after it’s done.
All photos courtesy Eastern Front Theatre.