Ringside View: Michael Cristofer Finds Soul-Stirring Echoes in Emile Griffith's Life

When playwright Michael Cristofer’s Man in the Ring begins, the character of Emile Griffith sits onstage, softly singing a Caribbean children’s rhyme to himself: “Brown boy in the ring, tra la la la la.” Once one of the world’s great boxers, Griffith is now 70; years of hits and knockouts have affected his brain. He needs the help of his caregiver and partner Luis to get his shoes on. The simple tenderness of Emile and Luis’ interaction is the jumping-off point for Cristofer’s visionary new play — one that spans 50 years of Emile’s life. Emile Griffith is an all-time legend in boxing; but as told onstage by Cristofer and director Michael Greif, the dramatic portrait of Griffith is more than a sports story. Following Griffith’s life in and out of the ring, every moment is filled with the boxer’s irrepressible spirit, by turns charming and flirtatious, angry and wounded.

Cristofer’s interest in Emile Griffith’s life began when writing the libretto for a biographical jazz opera Champion. Cristofer sensed that a play would allow him to bring in more facets of Griffith’s life than the opera allowed.“I had so much material that I wanted to use,” Cristofer says, “aspects of his life and of his story that I just couldn’t get into the opera. The play has been a really great opportunity for me to finish telling the story of Emile’s life.”

The play travels back to Griffith’s earliest years —young immigrant from the British Virgin Islands, arriving in NewYork with nothing but “champagne dreams and lime juice money.” Though he is already good at making delicate hats, his powerful physique matches that of a boxer, and he is pushed into amateur boxing competitions by an ambitious manager. Griffith becomes a quick success in prizefighting and a six-time world champion. But the central event of Griffith’s life is an infamous match against Benny Paret in Madison Square Garden on March 24, 1962; Paret taunted the openly bisexual Griffith with homophobic slurs at the weigh-in, and in the ring, Griffith pummeled Paret, who lapsed into a coma. Paret died 10 days later. Griffith, a sensitive and mild man despite his prowess as a boxer, was never able to come to terms with having played a role in Paret’s death.

“I keep thinking how strange it is ... I kill a man, and most people understand and forgive me. However, I love a man, and to so many people, this is an unforgivable sin; this makes me an evil person. So, even though I never went to jail, I have been in prison almost all my life.”

In the outline of Griffith’s life, Cristofer saw a way to explore major themes that still permeate our culture. Griffith was one of the earliest “out” athletes of his caliber, open about his sexuality in a way that would still attract attention today for a professional athlete. In another point of contemporary relevance, Griffith’slife was shaped by the violence that happened in the sporting ring, both physical and psychological. Griffith was diagnosed with dementia pugilistica, a condition now known to be relatedto chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Cristofer found both these themes resonant as a storyteller. “The important thing about doing the play now is that it’s so relevant to what’s still going on in the sports world and the damage that’s been done to athletes,”Cristofer says.“In the world of gay and lesbian rights, this is the story of an athlete who was gay and couldn’t come out in the 1950s and 1960s, and I’m not sure how much different it is now in the boxing world. Although Emile’s story takes place mainly from 1959-1962, there is a real relevance to what’s going on in the world today, and there’s a great opportunity to tell this story now.”

Cristofer knew he wanted the play to convey the sense of pleasure that Griffith brought to his life and his buoyant personality. To Cristofer, the play is a tribute that “despite a really difficult life, he was a joyful presence through most of it.” Capturing that sense of delight was important to Cristofer both in how he portrayed Emile’s personality and in how he thought about the whole experience ofthe play. “Hearing Emile’s story can be a joyful experience for the audience,” Cristofer says. “That’s why we’re using all of these old traditional Caribbean children’s games that have little songs and proverbs. All of those are interwoven into the structure of the play and how we tell the story. I’m hoping that, finally, it will be not only a satisfying theatrical experience, but also a joyful theatrical experience.”

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