How does the boxing ring set up on stage play into or influence your projection design?
Which came first for you – boxing or tap dancing? How do they go together?
Boxing came first; it was part of my Puerto Rican family heritage and my dad (a boxer himself) thought it essential to a young man’s upbringing. When I started boxing in New York, my trainer, Tony Fortunado, told me ballet classes would be good for my footwork in the ring. So, I took ballet classes, but nobody knew. I couldn’t tell the other fighters or my dad that I was taking ballet. When I realized boxing wasn’t for me, I was driving a truck for the family business; I started taking ballet classes in NYC during my delivery routes. Then I saw Gregory Hines tap dancing on TV and knew that was it.
Boxing and tap dancing go smoothly together. Both are all about rhythm, moving from one foot to the other, and changing weight on the fly. Both can be extremely improvisatory. I think of both tap dancing and boxing as moveable drumming: one is hitting the feet, the other is hitting the hands, all propelled with rhythm.
What is your role in telling the story of Emile Griffith?
My role is to help tell the story through the physicality of the boxer. Emile was what fight people call a classic boxer, where the fighter uses his footwork to outsmart his opponents, to create angles in order to hit and not get hit. So I will tell the story through rhythms and overall movement. I work very closely with Director Brain Staufenbiel to make sure that what I’m thinking about the movement meshes with his ideas.
What do you most look forward to about this production?
Wow, I feel like a kid in a fancy Parisian chocolate shop! I really don’t know what to say about working on this production. It is simply humbling to get to work with such artists on a project like Champion, which combines so much of who I am and what I love. Jazz, opera, dance, theatre, and BOXING!!!!! Man that is cool.
Click on the video to watch a clip of Joe boxing and tap dancing in some of his other projects
Young Emile is such an interesting character because we only see him through his own flashbacks. Can you talk about his ‘Flashy Green Suit’ costume in that context?
It’s a total costume moment! It shows a kind of heightened reality. Aesthetically, the green suit is part of his memory. Just the way you remember your own life, but you don’t remember it in full focus with all the details. To help us theatricalize this story in the most interesting way, we can create a real moment. We can add pop and exaggerated color – we can play with colors and patterns. With Emile, we’re going through the span of his life in his own memory. His outfits are a way to show the progression of time, and because of his dementia, that’s often blurred together.
I think about how difficult it must have been to be a bisexual man in the sports world in the 60’s and 70’s. It’s so interesting to see the contrast of what he was wearing at the boxing gym and in his other life at the gay bar. His style changed as he boxed less, but he really did like to dress flashy, always wearing an obscene amount of jewelry, even when it was a casual look.
Do you have any other favorite characters?
The Ring Announcer is pretty fun. He’s on stage through the whole guiding the story. He’ll have a kind of cheesy tuxedo with a ruffled tux shirt.
Emile’s mother, Emelda, also has a cool character journey that she takes. She starts off in a lower socio-economic class, and then Emile shared his wealth with her. Her clothing changes to show that progression.
Now that we’re about 3 weeks out from opening night, where are you in the costuming process?
Well, right now I’m pulling chorus costumes at the rental house, we’re working with a tailor in north beach, and we have a magical spreadsheet in the works to organize the chorus’ many costume changes (up to 5 each!).