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Site-Specific SUGAR RAY to Play New Harlem Besame Restaurant, 2/26-3/28


Sugar Ray Robinson was, pound for pound, the greatest boxer of all time. In his 25-year professional career, from 1940 to 1965, he was boxing history's first winner of five divisional championships (in the middle weight and welterweight divisions). This "King of Harlem" was renowned for his litheness, his power and his flamboyant lifestyle outside the ring. His career peaked between 1947 and 1950, before the era of TV boxing, so his style and legacy are less preserved today that those of other boxers, including his admirer, Muhammed Ali. That's why "Sugar Ray" by playwright Laurence Holder is so significant. It recaptures Robinson's life and boxing legacy in a biographical solo show that will be exciting to those who idolized him and illuminating to those who grew up after his era. The play will have its world premiere February 26 to March 28 as a site-specific dinner theater presentation at New Harlem Besame Restaurant, 2070 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. That location is the original home of Sugar Ray's bar/restaurant and business offices during the 50's and 60's. AUDELCO winner Reginald L. Wilson plays the boxer. Director is Woodie King Jr., the much-honored Artistic Director of New Federal Theatre.

Sugar Ray Robinson was born Walker Smith Jr. and got his first fight by circumventing the Amateur Athletic Union's age restriction by borrowing a birth certificate from his friend Ray Robinson. Subsequently he was told that he was "sweet as sugar" by a lady in the audience of a fight in Watertown, NY. He won the Golden Gloves featherweight championship in 1939 and its lightweight championship in 1940. Turning pro, he was World Welterweight Champion from 1946 to 1951 and added the World Middleweight crown the latter year. He retired in 1952, only to return to the ring two and a half years later and continued fighting way beyond his prime, until 1965, in a lifetime struggle to get out of IRS trouble (he never succeeded). He regained the middleweight crown in 1955 and held it, on and off, until 1959. He possessed a fine mind and physical talents, but his race was used against him, both in boxing and outside of it. He was cheated out-negotiated on purses and embezzled in his outside businesses. Nevertheless, he maintained a stalwart integrity as a gladiator, once turning down a million dollar payoff from a mobster to throw a fight with "Raging Bull" Jake LaMotta. The sum would have settled his tax bill.

Robinson was the most charismatic athlete of his age and one of the most graceful and handsome men of any time. He was larger than life, idolized by millions of African American youths. He originated the modern sports entourage, traveling with a golf pro, a barber, an Arabian midget who spoke five languages, and his signature pink Cadillac convertible. Crowds gathered wherever he was parked. During his first retirement, from 1952 to 1955, he pursued a career as a dancer, opening at the French Casino in NYC for $15,000 a week. After that, showbiz was downhill for him. Sportswriter W.C. Heinz quoted a Broadway booking agent as saying, "Robinson was a good dancer, for a fighter. Maybe no other fighter danced as well, but the feature of his act was his change of clothes. He looked good in everything he put on." Nevertheless, "Sugar" was probably the first black athlete to establish himself as a celebrity outside sports. He was a fixture of the NYC social scene in the 40's and 50's and his glamorous restaurant, Sugar Ray's, was a destination for Broadway and Hollywood stars.

When Robinson re-entered the ring in '55, his physical discipline as a dancer facilitated his comeback by keeping him in condition. That and his outstanding abilities enabled his long career. He had an astonishing 200 career victories, about seven times the number as today's champions. He suffered one TKO, but was never knocked out. He could knock out an opponent with either fist while skipping backwards. Now as then, he is the standard by which all other fighters are measured.

Robinson's autobiography states that despite earning over $4 million in the ring and outside it, he was flat broke by the time of his final retirement in 1965. He owned most of the block on the west side of Seventh Avenue from 123rd to 124th Streets and he had $250,000 tied up in a five-story apartment house, Sugar Ray's Bar and Restaurant, Edna Mae's Lingerie Shop and Sugar Ray's Quality Cleaners with its five outlets. He sold all his properties after his retirement to pay down his tax bill. He did some TV and film acting in the 60s. Toward the end of his public life, in 1969, he founded the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation to serve inner city kids in Los Angeles. (Interestingly, it has no boxing program.) He died in 1989 of Alzheimer's Disease.

Both author Laurence Holder and director Woodie King Jr. testify to watching Sugar Ray fight and idolizing him.

AUDELCO-winning actor Reginald L. Wilson was too young to witness "Sugar" in action. He has never been a boxer, but is an ex-marine and has studied martial arts. He bears a marked resemblance to the champion. They are almost identical in size: Robinson was 5' 11"; Wilson is 5' 10". They even have a similar vocal timbre and regional inflection. Robinson's family came to Harlem from Georgia; Wilson grew up in North Florida. Now Wilson lives at 135th Street and Amsterdam, about ten blocks from the site of Sugar Ray's restaurant.

Mr. Wilson arrived in NYC in January of 2011 to intern with Woodie King Jr. and The New Federal Theatre and by 2012 had been awarded an AUDELCO Award (Lead Actor) for his performance as Levee in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which was presented by New Haarlem Arts Theatre (NHAT) at Aaron Davis Hall. The year before, he made his NY debut in NHAT's production of "Blues for Mister Charlie" by James Baldwin and was commended by for his "standout performance." In 2014, he appeared as Jean in Strindberg's "Miss Julie," refashioned by August Strindberg Rep into a tale of the Antebellum South. Last year, he appeared in "Stockholm Savings" by Matthew McNerny in NY Fringe Festival (Award: Outstanding Ensemble) and performed "Home" by Sam Art Williams, directed by Woodie King Jr., for Project One Voice in Detroit. Other New York credits include "Black Angels Over Tuskegee," "Twisted," "Haiti's Children of God," "The Whistle In Mississippi" and "The Meeting." On TV, he has appeared in five episodes of "Celebrity Crime Files" and two episodes of "My Dirty Little Secret." He holds an MFA in Theater from University of Florida and has taught at CCNY.

New Harlem Besame Restaurant is a bustling family-owned eatery featuring traditional Latin, Caribbean, Soul Cuisine and cocktails. The owner hails from Port Limon, on the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica and is of Jamaican ancestry, which explains the establishment's fusion menu and lively atmosphere. The restaurant's decor includes blown-up photos of Sugar Ray posing in front of his restaurant with his pink Cadillac and serving drinks at its bar. Juxtaposed is a bar with African Mudcloth panels and bankettes as well as an impressive 22' x 11' mural from Liberia of African Mahogany which tells the story of the African migration to America and back to Liberia. The walls of the dining room are also adorned with colorful dadaist art by the owner's son, Haile King-Rubie. The establishment offers live musical entertainment weekly, but has never offered theater before. For this production, a playing area will be delineated by a background of video projections.

The idea of presenting "Sugar Ray" as dinner theater came up in a chance conversation between owner Bernardo Rubie and director Woodie King Jr. who, upon learning he was seated in the original site of Sugar Ray's, recalled Laurence Holder's play and conceived it as a vehicle for Reginald L. Wilson. Holder's playscript, penned in 2000, was adapted from a screenplay he wrote back in the 70's when Motown was considering making a movie on Sugar Ray. Holder has written one other boxing play, "Call the Fighter," which is published in a volume titled "Renaissance Solos."

Laurence Holder (Playwright) is author of such noted plays as "When the Chickens Came Home to Roost" (1976), which featured Kirk Kirksey as Elijak Muhammad and Denzel Washington in his first incarnation as Malcolm X. His "Zohra," featuring Phyllicia Rashad, presented by New Federal Theatre, earned seven AUDELCO Awards. He received AUDELCO nominations for "Man"with Kirk Kirksey, "Woman" with Judy Thames and "Hot Fingers" with Bruce Strickland. Other early plays include "Open" (1969), which earned him a position as Writing Instructor for New Federal Theatre Workshop, and "Bird of Paradise," which he self-produced in 1974. For La MaMa, he wrote "Juba" (1978), a dance musical directed by John Vaccarro in Ridiculous Theatrical style. All his other works are either realistic or biographical. His "Scott Joplin" was produced by Black Theatre Troupe, Phoenix, in the late 80's. Theater for the New City has presented debuts of his plays "Monk 'n Bud," "M: The Mandela Saga" (AUDELCO award for acting for Marjorie Johnson), "Ruby and Pearl" and "Red Channels." His plays have been presented in Europe, Asia and Africa. Mr. Holder has also written original plays about Barak Obama, George Bush II, Valaida Snow, Billie Holiday, Charlie Bird Parker, Langston Hughes, Max Roach, Nelson Algren, Simone deBeauvoir, Lenora Fulani, David Fagen, (the Army traitor who opposed the treatment of Black Phillipinos by the American troops in the Spanish American War), and Bussa, the African-born slave who led the first of three large-scale rebellions in the British West Indes that shook public faith in slavery in the early 19th century. Holder also created a TV show produced by the Department of Education for WNET/13 entitled "Watch Your Mouth." His work is available at

Woodie King, Jr. (Director) is a founder and Producing Director of New York's New Federal Theatre. He has directed for Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theater and film. In 1985, he was nominated for a Joseph Jefferson Award for "Boseman and Lena" and in the 1987/88 season he won an NAACP Image Award for directing "Checkmates" at Inner City Cultural Center, Los Angeles. In 1988, he directed "Checkmates" on Broadway. Other directing projects include Charles Dutton in "Splendid Mummer" at American Place Theatre, "God's Trombones" at the Ford's Theatre, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" at Detroit Rep, "A Raisin in the Sun and "The Member of the Wedding" at GeVa., Robert Johnson's "Trick the Devil" (AUDELCO Awards for Best Director and Best Play of the Year), "Checkmates" at St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre,"And the World Laughs with You" at Crossroads Theater Company in New Brunswick, "Mud Tracks" by Regina Taylor at Ensemble Studio Theatre, "A Raisin in the Sun" starring Esther Rolle and Kenny Leon at The Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Samm-Art Williams' "Home" at Brooklyn College, "Ali" at the Crossroads Theatre, "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches" and "2010 Men in White" at Ohio State University, "The Piano Lesson" at Tennessee Repertory Theatre in Nashville and Seminole State College and "Sowa's Red Gravy" with Lonette McKee. He has been a visiting professor at Oberlin College, Florida State University, and Ohio State University and has also taught at Yale, Penn State, North Carolina A&T, Columbia, NYU, Hunter, and Brooklyn College School of Contemporary Studies. Mr. King graduated from Will-O-Way School of Theatre in Bloomfield Hills, MI, attended Lehman College in New York and received his MFA in Directing from Brooklyn College. His awards include the Paul Robeson Award, the Rosetta LeNoire Award, the TCG Award, an Obie Award for Sustained Achievement, an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Wayne State University, an Honorary Doctorate from both John Jay College and Lehman College, and a Doctorate of Fine Arts from the College of Wooster. In 2012, he was inducted in the American Theatre Hall of Fame.

"Sugar Ray" will have sound and projection design by Bill Toles, set design by Tony Davidson, lighting design by Antoinette Tyne and costume design by Niiamar Felder.

Previews are February 28 (2:00 PM and 7:00 PM), February 29 at 7:00 and March 1 at 7:00 PM. Opening is March 6 at 2:00 PM; performances run through March 28 on the following schedule: Sundays at 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM, Mondays at 7:00 PM and Tuesdays at 7:00 PM. Tickets to the play are $49 and include a prix fixe Caribbean dinner (drinks may be ordered à la carte). There will be a special (early) gala performance Friday, February 26 at 7:00 PM celebrating Laurence Holder 's birthday with a star studded cast of friends, family and a who's who of the Black Theatre World. Tickets to this event are $100 (includes show, dinner, drinks & entertainment). Order all tickets through Smarttix, 212-868-4444, Additional info can be obtained by calling the restaurant at 646-261-5397.

Photo by Gerry Goodstein

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