Chris Black is a small woman. She’s five-foot-one and weighs just over a hundred pounds. But don’t let her size fool you. In a tank top that reveals well-muscled arms, and executing a punishing series of push-up-like movements, Black is looking pretty tough. In fact, “Tough” is the name of the dancer and choreographer’s newest piece. It’s a one-woman-show inspired by turn-of-the-century bare knuckle boxing champ John L. Sullivan, whose famous catchphrase went: “My name is John L. Sullivan, and I can lick any sonofabitch in the house.”
Sullivan, known as the Boston Strong Boy, was a major celebrity in the late 1800s. He’s generally recognized as the first heavyweight boxing champ in the world, with hundreds of victories and only one loss. He’s been called America’s first sports star.
“John L .Sullivan is one of these people who, if you are Irish American and you grew up very culturally Irish American, chances are you had at least a vague awareness of who he was,” says Black.
Even though his heyday was over a century ago, his story always stuck with Black. “He was this symbol of strength in the entire English-speaking world for about 12 years,” she says.
The idea for “Tough” first came when Black was performing in San Francisco a couple years ago, in a dance piece that required her to build a lot of upper-body strength. She became quite strong, but was also aware that that wasn’t readily apparent to the people around her.
“So I’d walk down the street in this neighborhood where we were rehearsing in, that was kind of a rough neighborhood, and feel like: ‘Don’t mess with me’ in a way that I’m sure the other people around me would have just laughed at me if they knew that was my internal monologue,” she says.
She started thinking about what it really means to be strong, which led her back to Sullivan.
“Somehow as soon as I started thinking about strength and presenting myself in a certain way, I started thinking of him,” she says. “He was looked at as the pinnacle of male strength, and therefore strength period.”
She wanted to know more, so she started digging around. She found out that at his fittest, the circumference of one of his legs was equal to that of her own waist.
“I just thought wow, that’s incredible,” she says with a laugh. “What would it be like to be so big compared to the size I am, that I’m just a leg on someone else’s body?”
Beyond the physical facts, Black was fascinated by Sullivan’s life story. He was hugely charismatic. He boxed undefeated for over a decade. His rocky personal life and heavy drinking provided plenty of fodder for the tabloids of the day. There was a performative quality to the way he lived his life both in and out of the ring that Black found very familiar.
But she says she wasn’t interested in impersonating a historical figure.
“The thing I keep explaining to people is: it’s not Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain,” she says. “I’m looking to sort of swallow him, and/or find the place where he and I meet.”
Black says she found a lot of parallels between herself and Sullivan. The boxer’s mother and Black’s grandmother were both from the same town in Ireland. And she says that as a dancer, she can understand a boxer’s tolerance for hard physical work. In one section of the show, Black falls to the floor and gets up over and over again. Her sweat is visible, her effort palpable, as her breath gets more labored with each fall.
In the show, Black swigs straight whiskey from a bottle, wears her grandfather’s pocketwatch, and sports a custom-made men’s suit. But she says the performance is not about drag: “I’m not trying to bring any realness to this, it’s just me.”
But Black says there is some satisfaction in personifying this very manly ideal of physical strength.
“I don’t identify with culturally acceptable symbols of female strength,” she says. “I’m not somebody who has ever felt powerful in some sort of sexual way, really. And even though I’ve had a child, that experience, while very powerful, nonetheless was not some: ‘Oh, this is the power of giving life!’ I just didn’t have that, I didn’t identify with it.”
John L. Sullivan did lose one fight in his long career. And that defeat pretty much knocked him out of the game, especially as boxing with gloves overtook the bare-knuckle era in which he ruled. Sullivan spiraled down further into drinking after the big loss. But, eventually he got sober, and worked as a promotional spokesman, a stage actor, a celebrity baseball umpire, and even owned a bar. Black says this part of Sullivan’s life story was also compelling to her. It revealed an inner strength-- the ability to simply continue on.
Black says that being in her 40s--considered pretty old for a dancer--she can definitely relate.
“I think a lot of athletes, when they lose that ability, they just sort of float through the rest of their lives,” she says. “Like, what are they going to do? This is the only thing they’ve based their entire identity around, this kind of physical dominance.”
In exploring Sullivan’s life through movement, text, and song, Black hopes to deepen our understanding of what it means to be strong, both inside and out.
"Tough" runs at the Shotgun Players' Ashby Stage Dec 14th - 15th.