Rest in peace, Joe Frazier, Olympic gold medalist, world heavyweight champion, and beautiful human being.
When people lionize Muhammed Ali, I've always said, "What about how he treated Frazier?" In the pre-fight press conferences before their first match, Ali flung racist rhetoric at Joe, calling him a stupid gorilla, and accusing him of being an Uncle Tom.
Frazier was far from an Uncle Tom; he was a tough, proud Philly fighter who came up hard in the racist South. In the documentary Facing Ali, Joe grows emotional as he speaks of Ali's insults: "It was like voices were coming into his head. I couldn't tell you who they were coming from because I don't know. But if you ain't got something right to say to me, then you better keep your quiet, because I'm gonna peel off and hit you."
He blinks back a tear. "Because there's nothing for me to do but just walk straight. Walk right."
Frazier describes preparing for this fight by working out in the gym for 30 minutes straight, no round breaks, while listening to James Brown. That's the way he fought, too. He was relentless in his aggression with a gorgeous, forward-surging rhythm.
Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA Today
Here he is in his North Philly gym, now closed. I passed through there in 1999 when I was still fighting. It was sleepy and atmospheric and there was kind of a sad feeling about the place, but maybe that's just where I was in my life. Everyone was very welcoming. I sparred with a nice guy named Marvin, while an older trainer yelled out things like, "If you ain't the hammer, you the nail."
At that time, Frazier's daughter Jacqui was getting ready for her match with Laila Ali. Jacqui was way bigger than me, so we never sparred. She was a 40-something lawyer with kids and I believe she took the fight with the 20-something Leila out of pure family feeling. All good daughters want to vanquish their father's enemies. The hyped Leila was never much of a fighter, and the fact that Jacqui fought her to a majority decision proves it.
One morning I showed up early and there was nobody in Frazier's Gym except me and Joe. He looked like he had been up all night. He was mad about an event he'd gone to the night before, where he felt he'd been slighted. The morning light was slanting through the gym windows as I stood awkwardly before one of the heavy bags putting on my handwraps. Joe Frazier stalked around me, fuming. His anger was like a physical force. It was pretty intimidating.
Then he stopped and laughed, and I thought: I will always remember this moment. Because it was like he was laughing at everything: at himself, at his pain, at me, standing there in my pigtails and pink sweats. To me, that laugh is what boxing is all about.
Trainer Eddie Futch had a hell of a time convincing Frazier to quit on his stool after 14 rounds with Ali in the Thrilla in Manila. Even though Frazier could barely see, he still wanted to answer the bell in a fight that Ali would later call the closest thing he'd ever felt to death.
"Sit down, son," Eddie told Joe. "It's all over. No one will ever forget what you did today."
The lush installation piece by Punchdrunk is billed as a reinvention of Macbeth, occupying a warehouse space in Chelsea done up as a hotel called the McKittrick. Theatergoers don Venetian masks and wander through the multiple floors in silence, experiencing the performance as they wish.
I made three key strategic errors in re this show.
The first was to reread Macbeth before going. Although the "characters" in Sleep No More correspond to the characters in Macbeth, the plot is abstracted to the point of nonexistence. There's almost no direct engagement with the text.
I love Shakespeare so much that it's actually hard for any kind of art experience to compete with just sitting on the couch in my pyjamas and reading a play straight through.
One thing I kept noticing in the text of Macbeth was how ambition destroys both the unity of time and the unity of self. Trying to make the future happen now, trying to leap over yourself. It made me think about my own crappy ambition and how miserable it makes me.
"Welcome to the McKittrick," said the elevator operator as he ferried our group from the swanky entry-level bar to the darkened hotel rooms above. I tried to keep my eye on my friend Lisa's ponytail, but he closed the elevator door between us.
"This is a solo experience," he intoned solemnly.
The bridge and tunnelers next to me giggled hysterically behind their Venetian masks. I tried to remain calm. The elevator door slid open and I stepped out into a graveyard lined with white crosses.
When Lisa and I met up in the bar after the show, she was like, "I kept thinking of how much you must have loved the erotic dancing and full-frontal male nudity."
I was stunned. "What erotic dancing and full-frontal male nudity?"
Photo credit: EMURSIVE
What I did see was rooms: A room of bathtubs, one of them filled with pink water. A mental hospital dorm room with crosses nailed to the walls. A room with a cradle above which headless babydolls floated. A fragrant room filled with bouquets of dried herbs. A room of dead birds hanging in plumes from the ceiling. A restaurant with half-drunk glasses of wine and clever menus. Vanities whose drawers held symbols drawn in sand. A private eye office with missing person reports. A hotel desk with crumbling lounge furniture and telephone booths. Candles stuck with needles. A bar area whose floor was made of wood chips and walls were cardboard boxes. A maze of trees. A glass cabinet filled with nails.
The lighting was crepuscular and the imagery was a pastiche of film noir and torture porn. It was fun, and I was grateful for the scope of the endeavor and all the work that went into creating such a vast entertainment, but I'm not sure the details were right the way they were right in Sophie Calle's Room. Maybe I would have liked it better if I'd seen more erotic dancing.
Photo Credit: Yaniv Schulman
Every once in a while one of the actors would sweep in and do a silent pantomime of some urgent, nonsensical action (e.g., rifling through drawers in search of something they never found, sticking pins in a dead bird, pouring out glasses of whiskey onto the floor, packing and then unpacking a suitcase). This was all pretty boring.
An exception was the moment I saw in the maze of trees. A creamy-skinned Irishwoman in a nurse's outfit emerged from a wooden shack. She walked, weeping, through the maze, where she stopped before a column and wrote on it with a piece of chalk: "Wife, children, servants, all that could be found." This was surreally, quietly beautiful.
By and large, though, I didn't buy the uniformly ramped-up nature of the emotions on display, which seemed more a way to sell the thing than authentic emotional truth. Shades of Stomp.
Although maybe I made a third mistake in not purchasing the program aggressively hawked as "the only keepsake from this show that is literally redefining the face of American theater." It might have revealed the deeper intelligence at work. As it was, I thought Sleep No More was smart, but only in the sense that a little black dress is smart. I slept great afterward, and it didn't even make me dream.