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A hero gets his due

Playwright Jacob Sampson crafts a new play sharing the story of boxing legend Sam Langford

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Sam_Langford_portrait

The legendary Sam Langford comes to life at the Waiting Room on Almon Street, as Jacob Sampson workshops his play Chasing Champions from March 18 to 20.

Langford, a native of Weymouth Falls, moved to Boston as a teenager and became one of the most feared fighters of his generation.

Despite his talent and accomplishments, few people outside of boxing know his story, and that’s where Sampson steps into his corner. “He was named Nova Scotia’s athlete of the century in 2000, but still nobody knows his name,” says Sampson.

A workshopped play means that actors perform some scenes fully, and in other parts just read from script and experimented before the audience. There will be opportunity for feedback afterward.

Langford held a number of lesser titles, including “world coloured heavyweight champion,” but because of racism and the economics of boxing at the time, never got a true title shot.

Sampson says many boxers avoided fighting Langford because they were afraid they’d lose, but with heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, himself a great boxer and a person of colour, it was all about money.

“Jack Johnson was a great fighter, but he says in a multitude of interviews, that he wasn’t going to make any money fighting Sam,” Sampson says of the world heavyweight champion from 1908-15. Many boxing fans wanted to see that fight, but the promoters always pitted a white boxer against Johnson in the lucrative fights, never Langford. It’s unfortunate that Johnson didn’t extend the same courtesy to Langford that he got from former heavyweight champ Tommy Burns. Johnson got his chance to become the first black heavyweight champion because Burns, a Canadian, had a take-on-all challengers policy.

Chasing Champions was originally a one-man play when it went through a reading at DaPoPo’s Live-In Festival in 2014, but Sampson has revised it and added two other actors to the cast. One will be Langford’s wife, Martha, and the other his manager Joe. Both actors cast in these roles will also play a few other minor characters. Sampson, a professional actor who has been performing for Shakespeare By The Sea for four years, will play Langford.

The idea for the play started after Sampson read a book about Langford three years ago. That book, by Clay Moyle, was called Sam Langford: Boxing’s Greatest Uncrowned Champion, and focussed on Langford’s exploits in the ring and is rich with praise from sportswriters of the early 20th century.

About a year into his project, Sampson found out that Halifax author Steven Laffoley also wrote a book about Langford called Pulling No Punches: The Sam Langford Story (Pottersfield). “I thought it captured Sam beautifully,” says Sampson, who asked to meet Laffoley for a chat.

Laffoley was eager to help and immediately offered his research to Sampson. “It was incredibly gracious of spirit,” Sampson says. “Clay Moyle’s book was great, but Steven’s was an artistic journey, seen through an old man’s eyes sitting in a boarding room in Harlem.”

Laffoley, who also wrote a book about Nova Scotia boxing great George Dixon, says he used contemporary sources as much as possible for inspiration. “I do like delving into the past letting the sources of the time speak to me,” Laffoley says. He relied mostly on newspaper sources and Langford gave some great interviews. “Sam was a great raconteur. He loved to tell stories.”

Sometimes, though, Laffoley had to read between the lines, like when Langford indirectly answered questions about Johnson’s snub. “He would have never openly suggested his disappointment, but it was clear to me that it was there. That pain was there between the lines.”

Laffoley is delighted that Sampson is bringing Langford to life on a stage. Sampson, who grew up in the Annapolis Valley about an hour from Weymouth Falls, hopes to prevent other people from growing up not knowing about Langford.

“Sam has become one of my heroes,” says Sampson, who hopes telling this story inspires others in the black community to write stories like this for the stage. “There are beautiful stories that exist in this province. Stories of great men and women. They are just untapped, but there is something that we can all get from seeing these stories lived out on stage. “Pick up the pen and see what you get.”

Sampson hopes to complete the play by this summer and get the final version on stage soon after.

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