The moment Barack Obama locked up the Democratic nomination during the 2008 presidential campaign, British playwright Roy Williams — long acclaimed in the U.K. for his streetwise dramas of explosive youth — booked an airline ticket for New York. No matter the outcome, he had to be here for the election.
“Amazing,” he says of the election night he spent in Greenwich Village and Times Square. Writing about his impressions for the Evening Standard newspaper, Williams declared, “This sows the seeds of a black Prime Minister.”
Another prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, is in the background of the 44-year-old playwright’s “Sucker Punch,” which begins performances Wednesday at Studio Theatre and marks Williams’s U.S. premiere.
“She’s a huge presence,” Williams says of Thatcher’s role in his play. Not that the Iron Lady is a character in “Sucker Punch,” which premiered at London’s Royal Court in 2010. She’s mentioned only briefly in the drama, which focuses on two black friends whose boxing careers (and Britain’s since-repealed sus laws — stop-and-searches akin to racial profiling) put them on a collision course. But England’s recent conservative turn reminded Williams of the Thatcher years that his “Sucker Punch” characters are slugging through.
“Like now, there was a recession,” Williams says at Studio, wrapping up a two-week visit to work with the cast. “Cuts had to be made. People lost their jobs. High unemployment. So to a lot of people like myself, she wasn’t a very popular prime minister.”
The riots that spread across England last year suggested that the parallels Williams feared were playing out. “Even though [current P.M.] David Cameron is saying we’re all in this together,” Williams says, “the cuts are severely affecting guess who? The people at the bottom.”
Translating the guts of “Sucker Punch” doesn’t seem to be an issue, then, even if some of the slangy language is being amended for American ears. (”You facety little rass,” goes one insult between Leon and Troy, the buddies who gradually turn on each other.) But even Williams was skeptical of the plot’s viability over here until the ensemble told him: “Police getting on black youths? Tell us something we don’t know.”
Williams’s reputation rests on the dramas he’s fashioned for nearly two decades of steady writing for such lofty theatrical addresses as the Royal Court, the National, Tricycle and the Royal Shakespeare Company. “White, middle-class audiences have lapped up playwright Roy Williams’ dissections of multiracial London,” read a 2007 Guardian headline, summing up much of the playwright’s career.
The plays are lively, but they can be rough. In 2004, “Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads” pulled the lid off a cauldron of nationalism and racism; the context was an English soccer match against Germany and Enoch Powell’s notoriously reactionary 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech. The 2007 “Days of Significance” reset Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” in war-torn Iraq and a binge-drinking England. When the RSC toured it two years later, an actor injured himself during a fight scene — a hazard that’s quite real in the boxing world of “Sucker Punch.”
“We’ve all taken our hits,” laughs Sheldon Best, who plays Leon in the Studio production. (Sports frequently figure in Williams’s work, though he categorizes himself as a fan, not a player.) Best and several other actors trained with boxers in New York prior to rehearsals here, being taught “everything from punching to how to put on the hand wraps, where our feet should be, how we move in the ring,” Best says.
Given the pugnacious nature of his plays, Williams is surprisingly affable — quick to smile, easygoing in conversation. “I expected something completely different,” says Emmanuel Brown, who plays Troy. “He’s just like any cool dude — so calm. Good sense of humor.”
“Sucker Punch” director Leah C. Gardiner, who was with Williams that giddy election night, has been a friend of the playwright’s since they met during readings in New York about a decade ago.
She has lived in London, so “I did a really bad black Cockney accent. He laughed and said, ‘An American who knows this world?’ That’s how we hit it off,”says Gardiner.
Williams was honored with the Order of the British Empire in 2008, and during a recent gathering Gardiner was trying to tease out details of the royal ceremony. But she says Williams kept excusing himself to monitor the Grammys. “I have to go see my girl Adele,” he explained.
This is the first time Gardiner and Williams have worked together, though when Gardiner met with Studio Artistic Director David Muse, she thought she was being considered for “Time Stands Still” (the recently closed Donald Margulies drama — she was e-mailed the wrong script). Told that Muse had “Sucker Punch” in mind, Gardiner laughed and breezed through, having seen the 2011 Olivier Award best play nominee in multiple early drafts from her pal.
Perhaps it’s the intense local concerns of Williams’s plays that have made this American debut so belated. His career has certainly been on a smooth glide path since his emergence from a writing program at Rose Bruford College in 1996, when Williams sent his final project, “No Boys Cricket Club,” to three theaters and heard back from them all. His subjects often draw from his working-class roots; his parents were Jamaican immigrants, though they divorced when Williams, the youngest of four children, was 2.
His father moved to the United States, and Williams finally met him a couple years ago in New York. “I wouldn’t say we reconnected,” Williams says. “But we’ve met.”
That encounter will likely factor into the play he’s writing for New York’s Atlantic Theater Company, his first American commission. That work involves black perspectives from U.S. and U.K. angles, with Obama’s presidency as some sort of foundation. Public and private histories will intersect.
“That’s my experience,” Williams says. “Things that happened 20, 30 years ago, things that were said and done, they carry weight. They still have an influence in people’s lives.” A teacher once told him, “ ‘No matter who you are, you should never underestimate the power of your actions, because they will ripple.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”
He hasn’t figured out the plot of the new play; though he has been prolific, writing often takes Williams some time. Meanwhile he’s eyeing the American presidential campaign and working on a screenplay of “Sucker Punch” for Britain’s Film4 Productions.
“I’m always finding stories to tell,” Williams says. “The world hasn’t dried up yet.”
by Roy Williams. At the Studio Theatre. Wednesday through April 8. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.