The Sixteenth Round Drama by Samm-Art Williams. Directed by Horacena J. Taylor.

Sam-Art Williams, whose warm-hearted comedy, "Home" has been spreading joy at the Court Theater for more than five months, turns to grimmer concerns in "The Sixteenth Round." The sordid drama about love and prizefighting has launched the Negros Ensemble Company's 1980-81 season at Theater Four, its new home on West 55th Street.

With skill and psychological perception, Mr. Williams probes the drives and motives underlying the conflicts and tensions of his dreary Philadelphia story. Holed up in a dingy north Philadelphia tenament, Jesse Taft (Paul Benjamin), a punch-drunk boxer with comeback dreams, and Marsha Lacewell (Rosalind Cash), a failed dancer, fortify themselves with a diet of impossible hopes. Their frazzled insecurity is further threatened by the lurking presence of Lamar Jefferson (Roscoe Roman), Jesse's former friend and rival for ring honors. Now a well-paid hood for crooked promoters, Lamar has been told off to kill Jesse in reprisal for a fixed bout in which Jesse's opponent died. In a symbolic sense, Lamar serves as an instrument of fate.

"The Sixteenth Round" is about loyalty and betrayal, hero worship and disillusion, corrupted hopes and lost innocence.In his desperation to win a championship, Jesse became the instrument of his own tragedy. The thoughtful drama is strongly acted under Horacena J. Taylor's direction. But it seemed to this spectator that, by extending what might have been a long one-act play into two acts and four scenes, Mr. Williams has weakened its suspense and diminished its impact.

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