October 25-27, 8pm (Oct 27 2pm mat)
Alderney Landing, 2 Ochterloney Street
$30 ($10 students)
The bar at the Lord Nelson is abuzz on a Friday afternoon caught between summer's fading grasp and the Atlantic International Film Festival's opening weekend frenzy. Jacob Sampson sits in a booth up top, away from the delegates and their flapping badges.
He's got friends who have made movies screening at the festival, but no time to see them—he's 10 days into a run of Shakespeare in Love, on until October 7 at Neptune, so his nights and weekends are booked. He's just finished a summer at Shakespeare By The Sea, which shortened its production of Othello to accommodate his rehearsal schedule. Once Shakespeare closes, he'll resume the role of his lifetime, to date (he just turned 30): The African Nova Scotian boxer Sam Langford in Chasing Champions, which he wrote himself. He went back to the gym yesterday. He orders a stout anyway.
"I had played quite a few slaves professionally," he says. "I wanted to find a story, and write myself a story, that wasn't that."
A football player from Coldbrook who's been acting since he was 13, Sampson started with a familiar name, George Dixon. "I could never play George—I've eaten sandwiches bigger than George, he was 135, 145 [pounds], super-lightweight," he says. "But I kept finding this name Sam Langford."
Langford was born in Weymouth Falls in 1883 and is now considered one of the greatest boxers of all time, though his race barred him from major championship fights. (Jack Johnson, the first Black world heavyweight champion, would not fight Langford.) When he was 23 years old, Sampson began sketching out a one-person show about Langford for himself. (It's the first thing he's ever written.) Through advice, workshops and dramaturgy it became a four-person show covering the span of the boxer's life, which took him around the world. Chasing Champions premiered at Ship's Company Theatre in Parrsboro in the summer of 2016.
"I work with new playwrights all the time—I read plays that are at every level of quality. When I read it I was like, 'This is fine,'" says Natasha MacLellan, the artistic producer of Ship's, who read an early draft and brought in Ron Jenkins to direct. "Jacob said, 'I can do the work,' and we got him a coach."
"I haven't seen athletics done on stage that often. It's very difficult to do—if you write something about a basketball team or a volleyball team or track stars, it can be difficult to show, not tell," says Sampson. "Boxing is the perfect thing for the stage because you can stylize it. And we've seen the popularity of things like Rocky turning into Creed, now turning into its own series—it can be stylized, and it can be very, very artistic. I mean they call it the sweet science."
Since the original production, Chasing Champions has won six Merritt Awards (including two for Sampson), was remounted by Eastern Front on Neptune's second stage last spring and will—after October's warm-up at Alderney Landing Theatre—land at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa this November.
"Jacob had the blessing of Sam Langford's family to write the story. We knew we had a gem, we knew we had the permission," says MacLellan. "From the get-go I knew it had the potential to become what it is."
Sampson, whose aspirations for Chasing Champions were modest to start, nonetheless feels a responsibility to tell this story properly, more so now that his stage is expanding.
"The African Nova Scotian community itself is so utterly unique in the rest of Canada, because these communities have been here for 300-plus years. They really helped to shape and build this province," he says. "There's so many stories that are buried and untold that are not just African Nova Scotian history but integral to Nova Scotia, period."