“My name is John L. Sullivan, and I can lick any son of a bitch in the house.” That was the standard greeting of the last and greatest heavyweight champion of bare-knuckle boxing in the late 19th century. It’s also how dancer and choreographer Chris Black opens Tough, her solo show about the legendary scrapper at Z Below. Black may not look anything like Sullivan, who had nine inches of height and more than a hundred pounds on her, not to mention the well-waxed mustache, but she doesn’t try to. She wears a bowler and dark suit, which ends up mostly discarded as the performance becomes more physical. When she takes the hat off, her long hair springs free.
What’s most believable in the way Black embodies Sullivan is her calm intensity, which is on display even (or perhaps especially) in the way she sits silently, slowly swigging from what looks like a wine bottle but is almost certainly intended to be whiskey, for an unnervingly long time. In short, she’s tough.
The effect is greatly enhanced by Hannah Birch Carl’s sound design, full of train-like churning and hissing machinery, echoing rhythmic clatters as if inside a giant clock, distorted ragtime piano and distant sounds of a cheering crowd.
There’s a fair amount of audience participation involved. Before the audience is even let into the theater, Black shows up in the lobby and assigns certain patrons the task of reading aloud the rules of bareknuckle boxing at the start of the show. We’re coached in how to do a 10-count properly and join Sullivan in the chorus of a traditional Irish drinking song (if that’s not a redundant phrase).
Because Black is a dancer, a whole lot of the hour-long performance is movement, not literally things that Sullivan is supposed to be doing but evoking a feeling of his raucous and endlessly combative life. “Who’s had more living than me?” Sullivan says through her. “Nobody! A short life and a merry one is my motto.”