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Chasing Champions, lauded play about legendary fighter, gets Halifax remount

Jacob Sampson's drama about legendary African Nova Scotian boxer Sam Langford opens at Neptune's Scotiabank Studio Theatre on Thursday. The play has the same cast and crew that won six Merritt Awards for its world premiere in Parrsboro last summer.
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Marty Burt has done more than 50 shows in Nova Scotia in the last 10 years.

And Chasing Champions is probably his favourite.

Jacob Sampson's play about African Nova Scotian boxing legend Sam Langford dubbed "The Greatest Fighter Nobody Knows" had its world premiere last August at Ship's Company Theatre in Parrsboro and last month won six Merritt Awards including outstanding production.

Eastern Front Theatre remounts Chasing Champions April 20 to 30 at Neptune's Scotiabank Studio Theatre. It will feature the same cast including Sampson, who won a Merritt for best actor for his turn in the title role as well as a Merritt for outstanding new play by a Nova Scotian, and Burt, who won a Merritt for supporting actor for playing multiple roles. Micha Cromwell, nominated for a Merritt Award for supporting actress, and Zach Faye round out the cast.

See also: Ship's Company's gamble on Chasing Champions pays off

What makes the play by the 28-year-old Annapolis Valley native so special?

"The story is exciting. It's a story that hasn't been told. It's about someone from here and written by someone from here. And every once in a while there's a certain team chemistry that works," says Burt. "People joked and called us a cult because we ate together and exercised together and had barbecue hot dogs at Jacob's and my place after the show, but it's not always like that. Everything just went beyond the sum of its parts." 

The team also included Merritt-nominated director Ron Jenkins, Leigh Ann Vardy who won a Merrtt for her lighting design, Garrett G. Barker (set design) and Corwin Ferguson (projection design), who were named the winners in the scenic design category, and sound design by Joe Micallef.

And all three actors say the design elements work even better in Neptune's Scotiabank Studio Theatre than at Ship's Company where the production was staged in the round.

"It's easier to stage combat on a thrust stage, the fights look really good," says Burt, who did the fight choreography.

c9931Jacob Sampson (left) and Marty Burt won Merritt Awards for outstanding actor and outstanding supporting actor respectively for their roles in Chasing Champions, the story of little known African Nova Scotian boxer Sam Langford. Sampson, who played Langford, also won a Merritt for outstanding play by a Nova Scotian. Burt played multiple roles. (DAVE RISK)

Not a huge boxing fan before the production, he's become a convert to the sweet science and is excited to bring to the stage the true tale of the little-known fighter who battled boxers in the ring and racism outside of it during the 1910s and 1920s.

"In the play we say he had between 300 to 400 fights. He had over 120 confirmed knockouts. They are not numbers anyone can put up nowadays. You had to have a level of toughness to survive in boxing in that era," says Burt, noting Langford has said in some accounts that the number of fights was even higher.

"He could have been a champion but the colour line prevented it," adds Cromwell, who grew up in Annapolis Royal.

"A lot of my family is from Weymouth and I'd heard a lot about Sam Langford growing up. He is a hero in Weymouth and I heard about him from my grandparents," she says, noting she is also passionate about history and the play is a chance to combine both her passions.

c9841Jacob Sampson as African Nova Scotian boxing legend Sam Langford, Micha Cromwell as his wife and Marty Burt in multiple roles including the preacher who marries them, star in Eastern Front Theatre's remount of Chasing Champions at Neptune Studio Theatre April 20 to 30. (DAVE RISK)

Cromwell, who started acting at age seven with a children's company based out of King's Theatre in Annapolis Royal, opted to take a history degree at Dalhousie.

But she continued acting with the Dal Theatre Society and got her first professional credit in The Mother Club with San Family Productions in 2014. 

Since then, she's also starred in Mulgrave Road Theatre's West Woods and filled in in DMV Theatre's Speed Dating for Sperm Donors.

In Chasing Champions she plays multiple roles including Martha, Langford's wife.

"Jacob interviewed Sam Langford's great granddaughter to fill out Martha. She was a very strong lady."

See also: Legendary fighter Sam Langford boxes again in Chasing Champions

Cromwell plays a couple of boxers including Joe Gans, the Lightweight Champion of the World but her favourite part is that of Liver Davies, Langford's trainer, because Davies is so funny and feisty.

"It's a nice change from being a lady," she says with a smile.

Faye jokes he spends Chasing Champions getting punched in the face.

"I get knocked out by Sam Langford four times," he says, noting he plays multiple boxers including Jack McVicar and William "Iron" Hague.

Faye describes his role as "taking a lot of punches" to make room for other characters so Burt could focus on more important roles and so the play will flow better.

"Sam fought a lot of white boxers and I already had a lot to do...and we needed someone to be a bad guy," agrees Burt, who plays Al Laney, the New York Herald Tribune journalist who makes it his mission to track down what happened to Langford, among other characters.

"The story keeps jumping back to Sam as an old man, blind, living in abject poverty in Harlem, though his mind is sharp for someone who boxed so much."

See also: Shadows boxer: Weymouth Falls phenom emerges from obscurity in Chasing Champions

Burt loves playing Joe Woodman, Langford's trainer, calling their relationship beautiful but his favourite character is Stanley Ketchel "a boxer who had been a hobo and ridden the rails and was the middleweight champion of the world. In one scene I get to fight as Stan Ketchel."

Though Faye grew up in Shelburne near Weymouth, he was not aware of Langford until he went to a reading of the play before being cast. And Burt says his knowledge of boxing began with Muhammed Ali.

Burt was fascinated to learn about Langford and has since discovered the fighter popping up in odd places like a one-man show by Mike Tyson.

"Tyson was compared to Langford as they had similar heavy hitting styles."

Now living in Toronto where he still spends time in boxing gyms, Burt says Langford's era was an exciting time in sports and a difficult time for race relations. 

There were race riots when Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight world champion, says Cromwell, who says Chasing Champions is important to the black community.

 "For the black community, to see itself reflected onstage is something that doesn't happen very often," she says. "Sam Langford is known in black communities and is a hero to us and it's important for his story to be told. A lot of people in the black community will see the show and will have never seen a stage show in their life."

Tickets for Chasing Champions are available by clicking here.



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