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Sugar Ray

Reginald L. Wilson delivers a powerhouse performance as the great American Black fighter in this accomplished solo play that’s performed in a boxing ring.

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Reginald L. Wilson in Laurence Holder’s “Sugar Ray” presented by 24 Bond Arts Center in association with Faith Steps Productions at the Gene Frankel Theatre (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

Most of the time wearing just white shorts, the athletic and magnetic actor Reginald L. Wilson delivers a powerhouse performance in Sugar Ray, author Laurence Holder’s accomplished biographical solo play about the great Black American champion boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson (1921-1989).

If you were a real fighter and guys like LaMatta, me, Graziano, Armstrong, Gavilan, Pep, we were real fighters, Louis, you were a gladiator. You fought until you couldn’t fight anymore. You fought for money, you fought for fame, you fought for glory, you fought because there wasn’t anything you could do. 

The historic Off-Broadway Gene Frankel Theatre’s playing area has folding chair floor seating facing scenic designer Patrice Davidson’s laudably atmospheric miniature boxing ring with its requisite ropes, a weathered punching bag, a bucket, a wood stool and a nearby closet containing garments for a few costume changes. The theater’s standard rows of seats are available to sit in as well.

Reginald L. Wilson in Laurence Holder’s “Sugar Ray” presented by 24 Bond Arts Center in association with Faith Steps Productions at the Gene Frankel Theatre (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

For 80 minutes, Mr. Wilson commands the stage with his expressive voice and charismatic physical presence. Wilson portrays Robinson from robust youth to latter older-age beset by early Alzheimer’s with verve, recounting the fighter’s life from birth in Georgia, to a poverty-stricken Harlem childhood, to his rise and fall in the ring. Direct address is a conceit of the play, and so Wilson is in constant motion, periodically engaging with audience members and at times playfully throwing punches at some. In addition to fiercely channeling Robinson, Wilson offers marvelous mini portraits of Robinson’s resourceful divorced mother, Walter Winchell and Muhammad Ali. It’s a towering turn.

Mr. Holder’s superior and informative work fuses factual details with smooth dramatic writing, resulting in an absorbing exploration. One can be ignorant of Robinson’s life and boxing in general and still be entertained by the play’s forceful narrative achievements. Director Luther D. Wells’ energetic staging fully realizes Holder’s vision while visually and thematically evoking a prize fighter’s inevitable downward trajectory. Anecdotally, we learn of the sorrowful fates of many figures such as Joe Louis and Jake LaMotta. Robinson and LaMotta’s six bouts were depicted in Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film, Raging Bull.

You were intoxicated by the smell of liniment, sweat, old leather, the sounds of striking lickety-split speed bags, of pounding the thudding of heavy bags, of light on your feet rope skipping, of gauze and adhesive tape wrappings on your hands, of the sight of trainers, promoters and blood.

Reginald L. Wilson in Laurence Holder’s “Sugar Ray” presented by 24 Bond Arts Center in association with Faith Steps Productions at the Gene Frankel Theatre (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

Clanging bells, roaring crowds and furious punches comprise sound designers Thomas R. Gordon and Kimberly K. Harding’s smashing contributions which are heard throughout. “Lucky” Gilbert Pearto’s bold lighting design shifts from stark brightness to dreamy dimness, all to great effect. Besides the classic boxing shorts, costume designer Edith Carnley provides Wilson with a dapper dark suit.

The combination of Reginald L. Wilson’s ferociousness, Laurence Holder’s attentive treatment and its impeccable production makes Sugar Ray a richly satisfying theatrical experience.

Sugar Ray (through January 23, 2022)

24 Bond Arts Center in association with Faith Steps Productions

Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.genefrankeltheatre.com

Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (804 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

4 Comments on Sugar Ray

  1. Darryl…
    Thank you for an outstanding article about the play,
    “Sugar Ray” . I was on the edge of my seat with Reginald Wilson’s performance… & this production.

  2. Avatar Kevin Thorbourne // January 10, 2022 at 10:14 pm // Reply

    I was at the dress rehearsal and the play is awesome. I lived in Harlem when Sugar Ray Robinson owned his businesses and I attended the boxing matches at Sunnyside Gardens and St. Nicholas Gardens in the 60s, so the play brought back so many memories of the Sweet Science.

  3. Darryl,
    Thank you so much for this wonderful review and for coming to the Gene Frankel Theatre. It is point on. We couldn’t be happier. I am so proud of this review, the play Sugar Ray, Reginald L. Wilson and the talent involved.
    Gail Thacker
    Artistic Director
    24 BAC/GFT

  4. Can’t wait until it come to Detroit Michigan

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