BWW Interview: Guy Van Swearingen Squares Off With THE OPPONENT
Boxing is apparently the new black this year, evidenced by a slew of sweaty productions that have captured the intricacies of the fighting world. ROCKY may have been the most publicized of the crop, but there was also FETCH CLAY, MAKE MAN, about Muhammad Ali, and now bounds in THE OPPONENT.
THE OPPONENT, a two-man drama, literally draws the audience close to the gritty world of a small-time trainer and owner of a Louisiana boxing gym and a wannabe contender. Guy Van Swearingen portrays the aging but formidable gym owner (Tre Billiford). His former trainee, Donell Fuseles (played by Kamal Angelo Bolden) has his eyes on a top-flight fight career that ultimately never achieves liftoff. The two spar, trading barbs and punches, and try to hang on to a fragile mutual trust and respect.
"We started back in Chicago a year and a half ago," Van Swearingen, a Chicago native, said before a recent performance. "We both worked out a lot. I had read the play a year before and we actually trained at different gyms initially."
The authentic-looking set (Joey Wade, set designer) features a worn boxing ring, with limp ropes duct-taped in places, tattered and slumping boxing posters on dingy walls, a much-pummeled punching bag and a grimy floor. It looks sticky. With the ring in a corner of the theater, the audience, just a few arm's lengths away, traps the combatants inside the ropes.
"One of the main differences between the play's gym and a real one, is there's a bell that goes off every three minutes," said Van Swearingen. "Then after that, another goes off after 30 seconds. It's a conditioning technique," he added.
"You spar for three minutes, rest for 30 seconds, then move on to another training object," he said. "I worked with a professional trainer, and one revolution I'd do shadow boxing, punching bag, medicine ball or jump rope for three minutes. Then maybe go on to the heavy bag again." He took a breath. "It gets you into shape real fast."
The tension between the two characters in the play, written by Brett Neveu, is taut, Van Swearingen said, because of their shared histories and dreams, some deferred. "The dynamic in the beginning of the play is he's getting ready for a big career fight. He's moved on from my gym and I kind of want him to succeed and kind of resent his seeming lack of respect."
In Act II, Donell comes back five years later, looking for maybe a pat on the back from his former trainer, Van Swearingen said. "Tre wants him to say 'Thanks for everything you've done for me.' There's a palpable tension.
"My emotional understanding of Tre is that he's been around boxing his whole life and his own boxing career was a bit storied, more of an underdog that never quite made it," Van Swearingen said. "That life of boxing is his whole story; things haven't gone as great as he would have hoped. He never even had a family.
"I see this as a story of irreconcilable differences," he said. "Donell is the heart and spirit, the dilemma in every human spirit. And Tre is the head; the common sense, the mental aspect of the sport. And there's ultimately no reconciling the heart and the head."
He sees the two as having little moments of empathy, "but they can't coalesce for any great length of time. It's a wonderful dynamic."
The action spans five years in contemporary time, with Donell trying to mount a couple of comebacks, but they were not successful. "Their stories reflect each other in that they never really amounted to what they both had hoped for," he said. "Although Donell is still trying, it doesn't look like he's going to get there." The big time will elude him just as it has Tre, he said.
The play, in which lines of dialogue are layered over flying jabs, hooks and uppercuts, is physically demanding, even for Van Swearingen, who boxed as a teenager. "This is the most demanding piece of theater I've ever done in my life, or probably ever will," he said. "There's not much out there right now like this play."
A big chunk of the emotional drama is the underlying father/son role that slithers just beneath the surface. "There are lots of elements," said Van Swearingen, "the issue of race" -- Donell is black; Tre is white - "inability to reconcile heart with head, and the ineffectual side of parenting. Tre sees the world as it is and wants to guide the kid, but he also wants the kid to find it for himself," he said.
"The story itself is universal and I'm surprised by how attached women are to the story," he said. "I don't want to sound sexist, but men are less into the story and more into the physicality. But the story strips away the world of boxing and it's a story of two people who try to help one another and fail miserably."
The fight choreography (boxing trainer Sam Colonna) was extremely difficult to navigate, Van Swearingen added. "We worked quickly to integrate all that physical activity with near-constant dialogue, in a short amount of time." So far, no spars have met flesh, for which he is grateful, he said. "We work hard at not hitting each other. We don't want to hurt each other, but want to look like we're killing each other." That they do.
The production's schedule has taken its toll on his eating habits, he explained. "It's weird because it totally messes up my eating. I'll usually eat at noon and then maybe two pieces of chocolate and a banana. Then after the show I comb the streets of New York looking for a good meal," he said. "I eat maybe half a slab of meat after 10:30. It works for me."
So far, injuries have been kept to a minimum. "When we were warming up I kept pulling my calf muscle, tearing and twinging it for the first couple of weeks before we came to New York. I guess that's part of getting older. You get cramps and have to work it out.
"Now it's all fun," he said. He knows what to do to avoid getting pummeled. "I worked out whatever kinks that were there. We're not getting hurt, just maybe run down."
THE OPPONENT is produced by A Red Orchid NYC in association with Bisno Productions, at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, through September 7.
Photos by C. Mead Jackson