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Role Playing: Kamal Angelo Bolden sharpened dramatic combinations to play ‘The Opponent’

Submitted by on Dec 14, 2012 – 2:19 pm

Interview: Actor says learning to bob and weave on streets of Peoria prepped him for part as fighter in Brett Neveu’s play at A Red Orchid Theatre. Through Dec. 15.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

A round of boxing lasts three minutes. That’s about how long it takes Kamal Angelo Bolden, as a spunky young boxer who’s all speed and dreams in Brett Neveu’s “The Opponent,” to redefine the phrase “physical theater.” But Bolden says his knockout performance in the ring at A Red Orchid Theatre was the easy part. The challenge was getting the dreamer right.

“Boxing wasn’t an issue. That was my ace in the hole. I’ve been a boxing fan since I was a kid. My favorite athletes were boxers,” says Bolden, who grew up in Peoria with visions of athletic stardom before the theater bug got him. “I’d never done any organized boxing, but in the hood we were always doing slap-boxing. There was no coach – your biggest teacher was pain. There were no hits to the body or arms, just slaps to the face. You learned how to duck and dodge and anticipate your opponent’s move.”

In his infectious performance, Bolden has all the moves both physically — he’s in well-muscled shape – and emotionally as the cocky, optimistic but untested kid being groomed by an ex-fighter played by Guy Van Swearingen. Before the clouds of conflict start to gather, it’s great fun just watching this handsome Ali-like fighter practice his punches with the trainer and blaze through exercises with the skip-rope.

Bolden says fight choreographer John Tovar designed the ring sequences “to look 90 percent authentic. The other 10 percent is for the actors’ safety. The play is also written in such a way that credibility is in the text. There’s a lot of boxing jargon, similar to the way the cops talk in the TV series ‘The Wire.’ That adds a lot to the story’s realism. We don’t try to explain the language, the references, the terms. You just go with it.

“The audience is a fly on the wall, watching Guy as the expert and me as the learner. It has to look like I’m being pushed. And we don’t follow a normal dialogue. A lot is left unsaid. You have to feel it, feel the story that’s happening in this run-down old gym with these two boxers trying to navigate, co-exist and show some love for each other.”

And that, says Bolden, is where the acting begins:

“Donel (the fighter) is the consummate dreamer. He has grown up without many chances to be someone and have something in the world. But on television he has seen people, boxers, who have these things. He sees that he can get on top of the world with his fists. He can have the beautiful wife, cars, a house, jewelry.

“In Donel’s mind, being able to show the world that you have those things is proof of your greatness. But communication breaks down between Donel and Tre (the trainer) because Tre thinks this young fighter is thinking too far ahead. Donel feels he’s not going to be motivated if he’s not thinking about what’s coming on the other side. And yet, while he’s cocky, he’s also vulnerable, and he’s hurt when Tre starts playing mind games with him – when he doesn’t express complete confidence.”

After his large-cast ensemble work in the Court Theatre production of August Wilson’s “Jitney” earlier this season, Bolden says he welcomed the concentrated demands of Neveu’s play.

“I loved ‘Jitney’ and being part of that great cast and working with (director) Ron Parson, but doing a two-hander has been a treat. Every actor must salivate at this kind of opportunity. You live a full emotional story with one other person on stage – the ups, the downs, the intensity, the silences. There’s no other outlet. If there’s going to be a resolution, it has to come from those two bodies.”

The actor credits director Karen Kessler with releasing the compressed energy of Neveu’s laconic script.

“Karen dug into the spaces, filled in the blanks. She knows boxing. She knows sports. At the first rehearsal she brought up Game 5 of the Bulls-Knicks championship series from the ‘90s.  She talked about it in so much detail I knew she had watched it. I was blown away. And she brought an intense knowledge of boxing. She knew Mike Tyson’s back story, which most people don’t.

“It’s important to have a director who knows so much more than the actors, and Karen honestly did. She bridged the boxing and the humanity of the play.

“I think a lot of people who are amazed by the boxing in the first act end up captivated by the second act where the humanity comes out. This is a story about failure to be vulnerable to somebody who needs you. So many times in life we have opportunities to be open to someone but we want to preserve our pride. That’s the heartbreaking thing: two guys who can’t figure out how to open up – or just refuse to. And so they fail to gain the other person.”

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Captions and credits: Home page and top: Actor Kamal Angelo Bolden. Descending: The fighter (Kamal Angelo Bolden) aims practice punches at mitts held up by his trainer (Guy Van Swearingen). The fighter (Kamal Angelo Bolden) in a reflective moment. Trainer (Guy Van Swearingen, left) and boxer (Kamal Angelo Bolden) take a water break. (Photos by Michael Brosilow)

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