Chasing Champions: The Sam Langford Story by Nova Scotia playwright Jacob Sampson (who also stars) and directed by Ron Jenkins is very much a “best _____ you’ve never heard of story,” the tale of a young boxer who was never properly given his chance to be the champion of the world. The fact that the story must be viewed through a racial lens only adds to its strength and importance.
The play works through a frame story—in 1950s New York, a New York Tribune sportswriter is searching for Sam Langford, considered by most, as the reporter says in the opening of the play, to be one of the best boxers who ever lived. No one in Harlem even knows if Langford is alive, but the reporter eventually tracks him down, blind and in a wheelchair, in a dingy apartment complex. Far removed from the glories of his past boxing life, Langford is not a pitiable old man at all though, but a jovial-enough man who is glad to have lived the life he did. The two get talking, and most of the play happens in flashbacks, starting in 1901.
Much of the play, at first, is a regular boxing story, and boxing takes center-stage. The set, designed by Robert Merritt Award-winner Garrett G. Barker, looks like a boxing ring, with ropes set up to mark the stage. Even in scenes of romance or when the elder Langford is on stage, the presence of the boxing ring never goes away. And despite no shortage of emotionally wrenching scenes, it is the boxing matches that stick with the viewer. His stylized fight with boxing legend Jack Johnson, which combines a hectic score from sound designer Joe Micallef with the other actors rhythmically beating their boxing pads together to simulate punches, creates a trance-like scene that garnered raucous applause from the audience.
Of course, this is still the story of a Black man at the turn-of-the-century. In the first half of the play, the racism is muted, but still present—off-hand references to Langford as a “smoke,” for instance. But when Jack Johnson defeats the white Jim Jeffries to become heavyweight champ of the world, the terrifying reality of the times becomes evident.
The second half of the play explores racism in far greater detail. Langford becomes heavyweight champion of Britain after handily defeating “Iron” Hague, who calls Langford a “blue-gummed ape” who he’ll “send back to Africa” and who wants to win the match because he thinks it will maintain the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race. He moves on to Paris, where he and his wife—played by the excellent Micha Cromwell—consider staying, far from the reach of an angry, white America. Johnson had also made his home there, fleeing a racially motivated conviction for “illegally” transporting a white woman across state borders—never mind that this woman was his wife. Eventually, it is the racism and disenfranchisement that beats down Langford more than any boxing toll.
Ship’s Company Theatre specializes in Nova Scotian stories, and this play is no exception. Langford is a Canadian boxing icon, maybe the best Canadian boxer there’s ever been, whose tireless fight to break the color line was far harder than all his boxing matches combined. Along with Marty Burt and Zach Faye, the cast of four brings to life a legend who should have never been forgotten.
This article was originally published in Capital Critics’ Circle on November 16, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.