As promised, here is a short review on the opera "Shadowboxer: An Opera Based on the Life of Joe Louis" performed this past week at the Clarice Smith Arts Center at the University of Maryland.
I am not by any means an opera devotee, so this review is written from a boxing fan's perspective. From that perspective, "Shadowboxer" is a fascinating and often riveting telling of the life of one of the great boxing champions of all time.
The opera plays out through the eyes and the mind of the older Joe Louis (portrayed wonderfully by Jarrod Lee), who is in the final moments of his life and in a wheelchair after a stroke. At this point in Louis's life, he was dealing with paranoia and was seeing visions and everyone seen and heard during the opera are flashbacks and products of his imagination.
All the major figures in Louis's life are here: Trainer Jack Blackburn (Vashawn Savoy McIlwain), managers John Roxborough (Benjamin Moore) and Julian Black (Robert King), his first wife, Marva Trotter (Adrienne Webster) and his mother, Lillie Brooks (Carmen Balthrop). Old Joe watches as his younger self (Duane A. Moody) weaves through the highs and lows of his life. Except for Old Joe, the cast wear masks on stage until their part in the performance.
The major boxing part of the opera is of the two bouts Louis had with Max Schmeling (Peter Joshua Burroughs). Prior to the first bout in 1936 (the bout Schmeling won), Schmeling is seen taunting Louis and calling him a "Shadowboxer." The first act ends with the cast showing how everyone in the country huddled around their radios listening to the rematch.
The second act delves deeper into Louis's financial problems with the Internal Revenue Service, his marital problems and his drug and mental issues. Louis is paranoid and hears voices. In one riveting scene, Louis imagines he sees Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali talking to him. Johnson and Ali were portrayed, not by singers but by a saxaphone (Johnson) and a muted trumpet (Ali). Old Joe continues to sing while Johnson and Ali's responses were translated into words on the set, calling Louis words like "gutless" and "Uncle Tom."
As a boxing fan, I was pleased that the opera did justice to Louis's story. No one should expect any revelations in the Joe Louis Story, but all the pertinent facts were there and weaved very nicely through the direction of Leon Major, Frank Proto, the composer and the librettist, John Chenault. Mr. Chenault mentioned that one of the challenges was to give voice to the life of a man who did not talk a lot. Many of Louis's famous quotes like "we will win because we are on God's side" and "he can run but he can't hide" became lyrics in the score itself.
This was the last performance for this run of "Shadowboxer." Hopefully, it can be performed again. We are always looking for new ways to tell someone's life. This was a very fascinating retelling.