The story of Johnny Owen, the boxer who “died for Wales,” has inspired a new play from the Yale Repertory Theatre.
“Fighting Words,” an original play written by Sunil Thomas Kuruvilla DRA ’99 began performances at the New Theater Friday night and will open Nov. 21.
The show is based on the true story of the Welsh boxer Owen, who died from injuries he received during the World Boxing Council Bantamweight Championship bout in 1980.
The characters in the play are three women who are left at home, when men from Owen’s hometown accompany him to the fight.
“It’s more than a story about a boxer,” said Kuruvilla. “It’s the story of three women being faced with the need to change their lives in some way.”
The characters are forced to deal with their own dreams and aspirations during this uncertain time.
“This play asks some really important questions about endurance,” said director Liz Diamond. “It asks when it is a virtue, and when it is a vice.”
Diamond said she chose this play to direct because she found the story deeply moving, and was impressed with the universality of Kuruvilla’s writing.
“It’s gorgeous, strong, poetic language and it packs an emotional punch,” she said. “He has an uncanny ability to put himself into the life of a woman,” she said.
James Bundy DRA ’95, dean of the School of Drama, agreed that Kuruvilla shows a remarkable ability.
“The show has a kind of glinty-eyed sense of humor and compassion,” he said. “I think it’s rare to find that from so young a playwright.”
Kuruvilla said he was inspired to write this story by Meg Brogan DRA ’98 while they were both students at the Drama School. Brogan plays Nia, a woman who dreams of being a broadcaster for the British Broadcasting Company.
“She’s a terrific actress,” he said. “I wrote the play with her in mind.”
While the play is set in Wales and features only three female characters, those involved said they believe it has wide appeal.
“They’re Welsh but they don’t seem foreign in the human sense,” Bundy said. “There’s a core of familiarity about their struggles.”
The sport of boxing is also a theme present in the play.
“It examines the heroic and ludicrous nature of boxing,” Kuruvilla said.
When Owen went to compete at the Bantamweight Championship in Los Angeles, he brought a large number of men from his hometown of Merthyr to the event with him. Weighing in at only 118 pounds at 5 feet 8 inches tall, Owen was nicknamed the “matchstick man” and “the bionic skeleton.”
Despite his slight build, Owen was considered a potential world champion, and when he unexpectedly died at the age of 24, it was considered a tragedy by his family and the boxing community alike.
“The extreme depth of his own courage did as much as anything else to take him to the edge of death [in the ring],” ringside reporter Hugh McIlvanney said. “This calamitous experience could only have happened to an exceptionally brave fighter.”
Owen is now revered as a legend and funds to create a statue in his honor are being raised.
“Fighting Words” runs through Dec. 21 and tickets range in price from $25-$40.