Sports | Sparring with history

Theatre production examines Joe Louis as a forgotten icon

It was August 22, 1938, at a sold-out Yankee stadium. Two minutes and four seconds into the first round, heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis had defeated his German competitor, boxer Max Schmeling, in 31 solid punches. That night, Joe Louis became an American hero as the pressure of America’s World War II nationalism and black America’s dreams of racial integration weighed heavily on the “Brown Bomber’s” shoulders.

The grandchild of former slaves, Joseph Louis Barrow grew up in rural Alabama among eight siblings. As his family suffered the hardships of the Great Depression, the young Joe turned to boxing at the local youth centre as an alternative to gang violence. It was there that Louis’s career began as he soon entered professional boxing and quickly garnered fifty wins and a pair of Golden Gloves to his name. Ten knockouts later, Louis had earned fame in the boxing world, and more importantly, white respect.

Currently playing at the Bain St-Michel theatre in Mile End, David Sherman’s Joe Louis: An American Romance investigates the boxer’s professional career and the political and racial undertones of his emergence as an African-American superstar. In the spirit of his struggle, Sherman’s play explores the many facets of Louis’s career as a sports figure, a political icon, and a hero for African Americans.

A victim of the media’s unbridled racism during his career, Louis’s successes and losses were personally felt by America’s black community. As Maya Angelou once said about Louis, “It was our people falling. It was another lynching, yet another black man hanging on a tree…this might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help.” Despite the nation’s segregation, whites and blacks bonded together as Louis became a national figure in his matches against Max Schmeling. In this case, the two boxers’ vicious battle embodied the Second World War political and ideological strife between American democracy and German Nazism. Twenty-two years old, uneducated, and illiterate, he united the marginalized, the blacks, the Jews, and the casualties of the Great Depression while maintaining a public image of respect and composure.

Sherman’s play presents Louis’s life on the set of a literal boxing ring. Real archival footage plays on the walls of the stage as the older Louis, (Ardon Bess), recounts his life by watching a younger version of himself (Samuel Platel). From the beginning, the audience witnesses the older Louis’s cocaine and dementia-induced fall from grace as a woman from the IRS prods him for money. Abandoned in 1981 to a life of celebrity greeting outside a Las Vegas hotel, Louis owed thousands of dollars in taxes to the country that had been the setting for his success.

A recurring line of dialogue in the play consists of the racial restrictions Louis adhered to in order to succeed and maintain white respect. Forced by his coach, Jack “Chappy” Blackburn (Tristan D. Lalla), Louis must repeat his real-life “commandments” by heart: “Never have your picture taken with a white woman, never gloat over a fallen opponent, never engage in fixed fights, and live and fight clean.” These commandments seem ludicrous in today’s sporting world as NFL gloating becomes  a team emblem and no NHL fight is particularly “clean.” Louis’s strict commandments and his dogmatic adherence to them highlight the adversity he faced – both in the ring and in his personal life. In the playwright’s words, Joe Louis embodied “Black America defending the notions that white Americans hold dear – democracy, equality, and tolerance – during a time when those very ideals were not practiced in much of the country.”

In the spirit of the Civil Rights movement, Sherman deploys a female character from the IRS as a parallel to black oppression. As she argues with the older Louis to pay the government in 1981, a sentiment of second-wave feminism emerges from her frustrations with the ever-proud Louis. She tires quickly of Louis’s “macho bullshit,” and reveals the hardships women endure in the professional world. The dialogue between the two represents the dominant social movements of 20th century America. Expressing her frustrations at lower pay than a man’s wages, the two are similarly caught between career and socially prescribed pressures. Sherman’s message is clear: many marginalized groups have been compromised under white patriarchal structures.

Joe Louis: An American Romance, seemingly displays more hatred than love, emphasizing topics such as the Depression, World War II, sexism, and America’s brutally racist history. In an interview, the playwright described the “romance” as a love story in which America worships, and then so easily discards their sports stars. “Despite Louis’s status as an icon he was left in the dust of history,” said Sherman. “No one has ever made a motion picture about him. Americans loved him and used him. He brought America this success and was dumped.” Despite the progress in racial equality since Louis’s time, black athletes still suffer the whims of the media. Sherman elaborated on this American “expendability of athletes” with the example of Tiger Woods: “An athlete like Tiger Woods has sex and he was forgotten instantly. He became a target because he had sex. He was human and he lost. Joe Louis didn’t even do anything.”

Although his legacy has not lasted, he paved the way for future racial awareness and future black athletes. However, Louis’s accomplishments are often overlooked among the achievements of African-American athletes in the 20th century. In Louis’s time, he was a cultural and political icon who has since been knocked out of the American consciousness – so quickly loved and lost in the public eye.


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