Boxing, music and wartime patriotic zeal converge in an eloquent, hard-hitting assault on the racial glass ceiling in "Joe Louis Blues" at the Tiffany Theater.
Set in 1942 jazz-era Harlem, a turning point ripe with cultural and social possibilities for blacks that would prove tragically unfulfilled, the drama continues playwright Oliver Mayer's ("Blade to the Heat") ongoing fascination with the metaphorical implications of boxing. Here, Mayer's fictional treatment brings heavyweight champion Joe Louis (a quietly confident Russell Hornsby) to an uptown nightclub, where he meets more than his match in Leila (Shelley Robertson), a talented black singer with lofty professional aspirations, despite the color barrier.
The Brown Bomber's invincibility in the ring sadly doesn't extend to the outside world, where he's defenseless against social and economic pitfalls he doesn't understand. His troubles earn no sympathy from Leila, and Robertson's sexy, sharp-tongued portrayal anchors the piece in gritty, tough-minded realism.
Infused with music and vitality, L. Kenneth Richardson's nuanced staging reveals the feet of clay in Mayer's characters as well as their heroism as they struggle to make their marks on a world that runs on manipulation. Leila may be using Louis, but she is in turn exploited, first by the cynical club owner (on-target Ellis E. Williams) and then by an unscrupulous white producer (Barry Primus, struggling at times to nail the character). More humane values are carried by the musicians, coronet player Demas (Sterling Macer Jr.) and the historical figure of saxophonist Sidney Bechet (Gregg Daniel).
Mayer occasionally overplays his hand (having Louis called "a credit to his race" by a succession of white characters--all played by JD Cullum--weakens the impact with repetition). At times it's hard to tell whose story this is (central characters disappear for long stretches), but Mayer's issues are clearly articulated--among them the thorny question of whether black men should be willing to give their lives for a system that excludes them from its rewards.
"Joe Louis Blues," Tiffany Theater, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Dec. 23. $32 to $37.50. (310) 289-2999. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.