A punch to the civic jaw

Rich Rubin's "Left Hook," set in Albina when urban renewal was tearing the black district apart, packs a personal tale in a political wrapper

Rich Rubin’s Portland boxing drama Left Hook, set in the 1970s era of urban renewal when the city’s vibrant Albina black neighborhood was largely clear-cut for a hospital development that never occurred, had its world premiere Thursday at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center as part of the Vanport Mosaic Festival, and the timing was propitious. Earlier in the day President Trump had issued a posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson, the early 20th century heavyweight boxing champion who was convicted of the crime of transporting a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes – or, more frankly, of being a free black man in America who openly reveled in his wealth and talent and refused to “stay in his place.”

It was a put-up job, frankly racist, and without a shred of justification. The woman in question was one of Johnson’s many lovers, accompanying him willingly, and the irony is thick that after more than a century of politicians floating like butterflies away from the issue the president who finally pardoned him is a man who has used race- and immigrant-baiting code words to build a fervent following of angry white voters. (You can also say that however welcome the pardon is – and it is very welcome – the word “pardon” itself seems somehow insufficient, implying as it does that the person in question was guilty of a crime but is forgiven out of the goodness of the forgiver’s heart. “Exoneration,” stating clearly that a wrong has been committed and that the fault lies not with the accused but with the state that was the accuser, seems much more to the point.)

Damaris Webb directs Rich Rubin’s play “Left Hook,” running May 24-June 10, as part of Vanport Mosaic. The cast includes Anthony Armstrong, Kenneth Dembo, Jasper Howard, Shareen Jacobs, Tonea Lolin, and James Bowen II. Photo: Shawte Sims

The crimes against the habitués of Ty’s boxing club and their Albina neighbors in Left Hook are softer (indeed, in legal terms there is no crime at all) but of equally disruptive, perhaps even devastating, consequence. What occurs is a potent blend of money, ambition and politics, a triumvirate that often sees high opportunity in the displacement of the poor and underrepresented. In Portland, urban renewal already had resulted in the bulldozing of Italian, Jewish, and working-class neighborhoods at the south end of downtown; the removal of miles of homes and other buildings to push three freeways through a thicket of neighborhoods, dissecting and isolating them in the process; and the destruction of a bustling black community and the jazz and nightclub scene that went with it to build Memorial Coliseum (the Portland Trail Blazers’ original home) and other “civic improvements.”

All of this sets Left Hook at a very specific time and place – Portland in the 1970s – and is spelled out well in Rubin’s script, often in outbursts from Ty’s feisty Uncle Cal (the excellent Kenneth Dembo, whose tongue is as sharp as the clothes he wears). Left Hook provides a clear sense of the forces gathering at the doorstep of Ty’s boxing club, in the same way that August Wilson’s Two Trains Running (in which Dembo was also featured in PassinArt’s good recent production) makes gentrification in Pittsburgh’s Hill District an essential unseen force in the drama. There are echoes, too, of Wilson’s Fences (a fine production of which is still on the boards at Portland Playhouse) in the shape of Anthony P. Armstrong’s performance as Bo, a onetime potent middleweight who, like Wilson’s former baseball star Troy Maxson, has settled into a life as a garbageman. In its shape and momentum Left Hook is also reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s common-man’s tragedies. But these are familiarities. In the end it’s Rubin’s play, unspooled in Rubin’s way.

Director Damaris Webb (see Marty Hughley’s fascinating ArtsWatch interview with her) answers the opening bell briskly and boldly, setting an expressionistic style that gives the proceedings an almost mythic feel. Entering Lara A. Klingeman’s set, which is dominated by a large raised boxing ring, Webb’s actors speak out loudly and gesture emphatically, shrinking the already cozy IFCC space so that everything seems to happen closeup, the audience leaning into the sweatbox in and around the ring.

The veteran Armstrong comes out booming, a genial and attractive force as Bo, who had been the best middleweight in the Northwest, including Seattle (“Boise, too!”) and at first it seems that Left Hook will be his play. But gradually the momentum swings toward Ty (Jasper Howard), who owns the club his father had founded, and is determined to keep it floating in a new neighborhood as the neighborhood around him is being torn down. Ty is an Army vet who’s spent two rotations in Vietnam, where he’s seen and done things he’d rather forget, but he appreciates the discipline he’s learned and he’s not going to let the hospital expansion beat him down. Always have a Plan B, his father taught him, and Ty figures, if all these buildings are being torn down, somebody’s going to make money building new ones in their place. Why not him?

Rubin has written three generations of compelling boxing personalities – the old pro Bo; the younger Ty; and Donnie (James Bowen II), the fresh-out-of-school young talent whom Ty has taken under his wing, training him and treating him, for better and for worse, almost as a son. Webb has cast the three roles splendidly. Armstrong’s joviality can turn hard and quiet and just a little dangerous when someone tries to pin him in a corner; when that happens, you see and feel the latent fighter beneath the good times. Bowen gives a remarkably fine performance as the kid, neatly balancing between devoted student and emerging man on his own terms: His relationship with Ty is fraught with love and frustration, and not just because he likes Ali and Ty likes Frasier. And Howard, in the pivotal role of Ty, expresses a classic American archetype, the tightly sprung man under pressure to control his surroundings and make everything work. You can see Howard’s mind churning as Ty does the masculine thing, trying to make everything all right, planning for every eventuality, and not seeing the damage he’s doing to the people he loves by never loosening his grip. Urban renewal might be the cause of the crisis, but Ty himself is pushing it to fruition.

It’s a man’s world in the fight club, with a fair amount of what the president passes off as locker-room talk, although at Ty’s place it does appear to be mainly talk. Rubin has given us two intriguing women characters, too – Ty’s ex-wife, Mae (Shareen Jacobs), and their teen-age daughter, Ava (Tonea Lolin), who’s feeling her oats a little too much for Ty’s taste. Both performances are well-turned, but neither character is as well-developed as the male characters, and in a way they end up acting almost as a deus ex machina, providing a solution (or at least a balm) for Ty from outside the main action of the tale. Left Hook is not, in the end, a tragedy, at least in the personal sense, and you can argue either that it steps away from the consequences of its own actions or it overcomes the expectations of its characters’ situation: Life goes on, with the promise of something better than mere endurance.

Webb and her team have re-created the club scene admirably, including a steady flow of natural-looking sparring and an occasional breakout punch or two. Webb, who’s done some Golden Gloves boxing of her own, also created the boxing choreography, with additional fight choreography by Sten Eikrem. Use your imagination a bit and you can almost smell the liniment.

Rubin has created a compelling, involving personal story within the structure of a large and disruptive cultural shift, using the history and politics of the matter to explore the ways that people interact and behave. The politics are crucial, both as a reminder of how Portland got here as a city and a reflection on the current pressures of gentrification and escalating housing costs that are threatening a new generation of the city’s powerless and underrepresented. Cities change and grow constantly, of course. There are always winners and losers; the question is, who decides which is which, and how?

Left Hook might prompt a lot of conversation: for me, it underscores a belief that our small-council form of government, with five council members elected at large and none from geographical districts, is dominated almost inevitably by downtown and development interests, no matter the good will and intentions of the council members themselves. The structure is inadequate to the equitable management of a growing city in which, without direct geographical representation – what might the Albina council member have said? – most voters and most neighborhoods have little real say in what does or doesn’t happen in the places where they live, and the less wealthy parts of town get ignored or exploited again and again.

Those conversations are good. So is Left Hook, which is linked to but also separate from such things. In its own small universe Bo, Mae, Ava, Ty, Donnie, and Cal play out their own lives and passions, which are small-scale and human, and pack their own punch.

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The premiere full production of Rich Rubin’s Left Hook continues through June 10 at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. Ticket and schedule information here.

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