Florida A&M professor Luther D. Wells and alumnus Reginald L. Wilson are taking Sugar Ray, a one-man show about legendary boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, to an off-Broadway theater.
The two conducted rehearsals in December 2021 on the FAMU campus as they prepared for the opening of the 90-minute production based on the life of Robinson, considered to be the greatest pound-for-pound boxer of all time. The play opened Thursday at the Gene Frankel Theatre in New York City and is scheduled to run through Jan. 23.
Wilson, a Tallahassee, Florida, native, former Marine and a father, seemed fated to play the legendary boxer. When he was working at a New York City restaurant once owned by the former champion, many customers mistook Wilson for Robinson, who was depicted in a mural above the bar.
“Sugar Ray was an entertainer, he was flashy, people loved him as a person. No matter what Sugar Ray did, people loved him,” Wilson said. The essence of the person being portrayed is a man who was strongly influenced by the women in his life but who was failed by the people he trusted.
“Sugar Ray had a mother who pushed him to do his best. When no one else believed in him, she pushed him,” Wilson said. “Sugar Ray had his issues. He died broke. People who don’t know him think he partied all his money away, but he trusted the wrong people.”
Robinson’s story has contemporary lessons. Some of today’s athletes and entertainers are swindled by their managers and accountants, Wilson said.
“It’s still happening today,” he added. “This story allows Sugar Ray to explain the triumphs and failures of his life and what he was going through.”
A FAMU Journey completed
Robinson’s topsy-turvy life and career resonates with the actor. Wilson attended FAMU for about a month in 1994 before dropping out.
“I wasn’t ready for school. I was immature. I was wild,” said Wilson, who joined the Marine Corps to get “some discipline and I calmed down a little bit.”
After military service, Wilson returned to Tallahassee and reenrolled at FAMU in 1998 to study theater.
“I saw Mr. Wells and I told him I was ready to come back to school,” Wilson said.
Wells, a professor in the Department of Visual Arts, Humanities and Theatre and associate director of theatre, directed Wilson in campus productions before his student left FAMU again after a few semesters and got married. Wilson returned to the Tallahassee campus in 2006 and completed his degree on Aug. 8, 2008. Ten days later, he entered the University of Florida graduate school, where he earned a master’s degree in fine arts in theatre.
While he was completing his master’s degree, Wilson had an internship in New York City with the legendary producer and director Woodie King Jr. Years later, when Wilson was running the Harlem Besame restaurant, King would be instrumental in boosting Wilson’s acting career.
After restaurant owner Bernard Rubie offered to help Wilson’s career, he reached out to King to host a dinner theater. When King visited Harlem Besame, a location formerly occupied by Robinson’s restaurant, he mistook the image of Robinson in the restaurant mural for Wilson.
“I said, ‘That’s not me. That’s Sugar Ray,’ ” Wilson said. “People came to the bar every day and asked me that question.”
The idea for Sugar Ray was born. King suggested a one-man show based on Robinson’s life. Four weeks later, Sugar Ray, by Laurence Holder, a dinner theater production, opened at the Harlem Besame. That 2016 performance earned Wilson an Audelco Award for best solo performance. Wilson’s acting credits include stage roles in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Blues for Mister Charlie and Miss Julie.
The Wells and Wilson collaboration seemed destined to happen after the FAMU professor saw his former student perform an excerpt of the play in Chicago, and Wilson relocated to Florida to handle family affairs.
“It was a presentation of Sugar Ray in a flashy suit and being the life of the party,” said Wells, who wanted the production to delve deeper. “I said, ‘You need to be Sugar Ray. You need to have memories.’ ”
The production explores Robinson’s dementia before his death in 1989.
“I’ve always seen this as a memory play,” said Wells. “It allowed us to explore the early stages of Sugar Ray’s Alzheimer’s through his story.”
Once Wells decided to workshop the script with Wilson, the suit went away.
“When the suit went away, I knew we were able to get knee-deep into the script,” Wilson said of the collaboration. “It’s a challenge working with Mr. Wells. He always pushed me to get to the end, to finish it. Sugar Ray is a challenge.”