“My name is John L. Sullivan, and I can lick any son of a bitch in the house.” That was the standard greeting of the last and greatest heavyweight champion of bare-knuckle boxing in the late 19th century. It’s also how dancer and choreographer Chris Black opens Tough, her solo show about the legendary scrapper at Z Below. Black may not look anything like Sullivan, who had nine inches of height and more than a hundred pounds on her, not to mention the well-waxed mustache, but she doesn’t try to. She wears a bowler and dark suit, which ends up mostly discarded as the performance becomes more physical. When she takes the hat off, her long hair springs free.
What’s most believable in the way Black embodies Sullivan is her calm intensity, which is on display even (or perhaps especially) in the way she sits silently, slowly swigging from what looks like a wine bottle but is almost certainly intended to be whiskey, for an unnervingly long time. In short, she’s tough.
The effect is greatly enhanced by Hannah Birch Carl’s sound design, full of train-like churning and hissing machinery, echoing rhythmic clatters as if inside a giant clock, distorted ragtime piano and distant sounds of a cheering crowd.
There’s a fair amount of audience participation involved. Before the audience is even let into the theater, Black shows up in the lobby and assigns certain patrons the task of reading aloud the rules of bareknuckle boxing at the start of the show. We’re coached in how to do a 10-count properly and join Sullivan in the chorus of a traditional Irish drinking song (if that’s not a redundant phrase).
Because Black is a dancer, a whole lot of the hour-long performance is movement, not literally things that Sullivan is supposed to be doing but evoking a feeling of his raucous and endlessly combative life. “Who’s had more living than me?” Sullivan says through her. “Nobody! A short life and a merry one is my motto.”
Black falls to the floor often, where she might roll back and forth from one end of the stage to the other or skitter across the floor like a small animal. She flails, buffeted around, or staggers as she talks as if taking a punch. She collapses and gets up again, over and over, and you might wonder if she’s embodying Sullivan here or the many men he knocked out. For a few minutes she swaps the places of a bottle and a stool on the floor again and again, as if Sullivan is redecorating.
Or she’ll do what look like fast and sharp t’ai chi routines, but with most of the movements focused inward, back on herself, rather than striking motions. She largely avoids anything so literal as actual boxing movements.
Some of it looks like training exercises, which is funny because Black’s Sullivan makes a point of saying, early in Tough, that he doesn’t train for his fights at all. “A shave and a shampoo is all the training I need.”
Sullivan is so quotable, in fact, that the movement sections have some stiff competition in Black’s compelling delivery of the pugilist’s bon mots and assorted facts that nearly always sound like boasting because Sullivan was such a larger-than-life figure and didn’t pretend otherwise.
Which is not to say that the pithy lines are all Sullivan’s own. One of them, “Every man has a plan until he is punched in the face,” is an old boxing adage attributed to everyone from Joe Louis to Mike Tyson. The historical material is arranged by Black, interwoven with original text by Courtney Moreno.
Black’s Sullivan recites a number of seemingly incredible feats and factoids of his colorful life, asking rhetorically if they’re true or false. “It’s all true,” he says, “and it ain’t bragging if you can do it.” (That one’s from baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean, though a similar quote was later credited to Muhammad Ali.)
There are a lot of similar litanies in the piece. Sullivan recites the names of men he punched out, even demonstrating how quickly some of the knockouts came by silently pacing for an equal amount of time. He lists a lot of quotes about himself, each preceded by “They said:” “They said, ‘He literally challenged all of America to fight.’”
As a biographical portrait it’s impressionistic, more about the themes and legend of Sullivan’s life than the man himself. But as a depiction of fortitude and ferocity it’s unrelentingly intense, and its power is all in the meeting and merging of Black and Sullivan. She doesn’t disappear into the part; she shines through him, and he through her.
Tough runs through August 9, 2014 at Z Below in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit zspace.org.
All photos by Lydia Daniller.