By KENNETH JONES
There is nothing particularly warm, welcoming, or homey about the setting of Brett Neveu's The Opponent
, a two-character play about a young boxer sparring with an older trainer in backwater Louisiana's Rock and Anvil Boxing Gym. The paint is peeling. The equipment is old. You can almost smell the mold and sweat.
Still, Chicago playwright Neveu drew on the feelings of family and home---including the safety of his artistic home---when crafting his gritty drama, which premiered to critical acclaim at Chicago's A Red Orchid Theatre in 2012. (It's now back for round two, with its cast and creative team intact, in its New York premiere at 59E59.)
"I pulled from my own memories of watching Friday Night Fights
with my dad back when I was a kid," Neveu says. Interviews with trainers, boxers, and gym owners also informed the piece, but from the beginning he knew his primary goal was dramatizing a "father-son thing."
In the show, Donell Fuseles (Kamal Angelo Bolden), a 20-year-old fighter with stars in his eyes, spars with washed-up boxer Tre Billiford (Guy Van Swearingen), a trainer eager to teach his students what not to do. The life lessons and fancy footwork come to a head following a fortune-changing bout.
"I don't think I have a play that isn't, in some way, about the family dynamic," the playwright says. "That probably grows from my linking theatre to family and vice versa. It's also something we can all relate to, the mixed passions and emotional baggage of family. Most of my plays are about what happens when violence pushes its way into the situation, and how power dynamics and protectiveness smack into what the characters want from each other."
And what do The Opponent
's characters want? Nothing less than respect, acceptance, forgiveness, and emotional or financial support---all that family stuff. Neveu paints his conversations in subtext-heavy gray, asking the audience to draw conclusions about the quality and motives of Tre's lessons and the wisdom of Donell's criticism of his father-figure's past failure.
"My goal is to keep the audience guessing who to root for, just like they might do with family," Neveu says. "That gray area is what draws me to subject matter and is what keeps me moving the writing forward."
His finesse with morally ambiguous situations is partly due to his immersion in A Red Orchid Theatre, which has premiered cryptic plays like Tracy Letts' Bug
. Founded in 1993, the troupe is part of the independent-minded, ensemble-oriented world of Chicago storefront theatre, and this production launches a partnership with New York producers that will take their work outside the Windy City.
Neveu, an Iowa native, says the storefront culture has been "a huge and vital influence on my work. When I was in high school, I started hearing about Steppenwolf Theatre and had seen on public television their production of True West.
I remember thinking, 'They make that kind of theatre someplace? Get me to that!
' From that moment on, I've tried to capture that punky, fighting weirdness in my work, pushing to make it hit me as much as I hoped it can hit the audience."
He points to True West
playwright Sam Shepard as a major influence, as well as David Mamet and Harold Pinter, whose work "spoke to me from its silences, the non-sounds I recognized from my own growing up."
is Neuveu's seventh world premiere for A Red Orchid, but as with everyone else in the company, his duties rarely stop at playwriting. In addition to acting, writing, giving notes, directing, and designing, the ensemble members might also be asked to clean the bathroom or vacuum the place now and then.
You know… just like at home, just like family.
Kenneth Jones is a theatre journalist and dramatist. He also writes at ByKennethJones.com and elsewhere.
Photo by Michael Brosilow