The Studio Theatre in Washington is introducing U.S. audiences to the crackling voice of British playwright Roy Williams with its production of Sucker Punch, an incisive consideration of economic inequality as seen through the eyes of two underprivileged black youths in London seeking success in the boxing ring.
Williams is the son of Jamaican immigrants, and he uses the challenges facing Leon (Sheldon Best) and Troy (Emmanuel Brown) to delineate the racial and economic difficulties of Margaret Thatcher's England: the action runs from 1981 to 1988, a period of casual racism, police brutality, crackdowns on the working class of all races, and riots.
On Daniel Conway's closely observed gym setgrimy windows, the manager's cluttered office, and a general atmosphere of sweat and steamand under the hot, sharply focused lighting design of Brian MacDevitt, Leon and Troy mop floors and try to persuade the boss, Charlie (Sean Gormley), to train them. Tommy (Lucas Beck), a young white boxer, goes out of his way to insult the two young black men, while Charlie's outspoken daughter Becky (Dana Levanovsky) becomes friendly with Leon.
In the politically incendiary climate, Leon and Troy have to make a decision beyond their athletic ambitions. Should they align themselves with the rioters or risk being considered sellouts by working within the white power structure?
Director Leah C. Gardiner keeps the tension high and the action movingthe play runs just 100 minutes without intermissionbut fight choreographer Rick Sordelet is responsible for the jarring, visceral boxing matches.
Best gives a dazzling performance as Leon, who alternates between dialogue scenes and intense monologues describing his perceptions of life in the ring. Brown complements him as Troy pursues another route to success, and Michael Rogers is amusing and sad as Leon's father, who drinks and gambles but depends on his son's money to do so. The scenes between Best and Levanovsky provide a welcome sweetness, especially when Leon tries to teach Becky to moonwalk.