Champion: Tshombe Selby’s solo debut and great storytelling

By on April 30, 2023

It has been an amazing journey for Manteo native Tshombe Selby from school bus driver to his solo debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Champion. In a role for which his powerful lyric tenor voice is perfectly suited, he played the role of boxer Benny Paret’s manager Manuel Alfaro with an intensity that made the character come alive. To understand why Selby’s role was so important though, the story behind the opera has to be told.

The performance was shown on Saturday April 29 at the R/C Kill Devil Hills Movie Theater. Champion, an opera by Terence Blanchard with a libretto by Michael Cristofer, tells the story of welterweight, light middleweight and middleweight champion Emile Griffith.

The story revolves around the nationally televised championship fight on March 24, 1962, when Griffith pummeled Paret with, according to the opera, “17 blows in seven seconds.” Paret fell to the canvas unconscious and died 10 days later.

That death is the defining moment of the play, but the libretto is far more than the death of a boxer in the ring. The story that emerges is of a young Griffith, emigrating from the Virgin Islands to New York City to be with his manipulative mother Emelda Griffith, performed with a gleeful lack of moral compass and self-absorption by Latonia Moore.

The play follows Griffith from his youth living in the American Virgin Islands to his arrival in New York City and subsequent boxing career, finally depicting him as an older man, his memory shattered by too many blows to the head. The one image he cannot escape is that night in the ring with Paret.

Three performers tell Griffith’s story. As boy in the Virgin Islands, the role is played by Ethan Joseph, as an adult by Ryan Speedo Green and as an aging boxer with a shattered memory, Eric Owens.

Just the story of Griffith’s life is compelling and makes for great theater. Considered one of the finest boxers to ever enter the ring, pieces of his life merge into a whole as the opera progresses.

Yet the bits and pieces that are portrayed, draw a picture of a troubled, hideous childhood. Throughout the performance, when asked how he became so strong, Griffith tells people it was through lifting cinder blocks.

The truth, though, was horrific. Sent to be raised by his religious fanatic Cousin Blanche (Krysty Swan), he was forced to hold a cinder block over his head and if he dropped it, his cousin would “beat the devil out of him.”

Swan delivered a gut-wrenching, powerful, if brief, performance as Cousin Blanche. Striding about the boy and singing about the devil within him, she would snap her strap into her hand to emphasize the beating that was to come. And it was all done with a Caribbean calypso beat from the orchestra.

In the play, Griffith was portrayed as gay, although in interviews he gave later in his life, he emphasized that men and women held equal attraction for him.

But in the mid-20th century world of boxing, there could be no wandering from the path of intimacy with the opposite sex. The attraction to men was another of the secrets that Champion suggested tormented Griffith.

It was, though, that fateful night in March that tortured the champ.

The fight should never have taken place. This was to be the rubber match. Griffith had won the first meeting to become welterweight champion. A second match went the distance, with Paret declared the winner. In this, the third match, the challenger was heavily favored.

Paret was coming off a title defense against Gene Fullmer in which he took an extraordinary beating. His wife begs him not to take the fight so soon after the title defense. But his manager, Manuel Alfaro—Tshombe Selby—forcibly tells them both that it’s just one more fight for all the money that they’ll need.

Although Tshombe’s time on stage was brief, his role is pivotal to the telling of the story, and the passion and animation he brought to the role made the rapacity of Alfaro that much more real.

Much of the play is based on what really happened in Griffith’s life—and Alfaro as performed by Selby may be part of that as well. As a fight manager, Alfaro was thought to put his greed above the well-being of his fighters, and a number of accounts of the fight note that Paret’s manager pushed him to take the fight.

Champion, though, is opera and live theater and no matter how good the story may be, it ultimately must be judged on what the audience sees and hears.

Musically, Blanchard describes Champion as an opera in jazz, and it does have very strong jazz elements, especially in some of the rhythms that are used.

The way this performance was staged was marvelous. Taking advantage of the size of the Met, two levels were almost always on display. That was particularly effective when the elder Griffith was looking down upon his life as a younger version of himself.

The choreography by Camille Brown was a thing of beauty; street scenes from the Virgin Island came alive; in the gym, everyone works out to a perfectly synchronized boxing routine. The championship fight was superbly choreographed and created a sense of tragic anticipation as the fateful round 12 approached.

One scene in particular may become the standard in years to come when dance, voice and orchestra all come together.

Hagan’s Hole, a gay bar that a young Griffith wanders into, had it all. The bar owner, Kathy Hagan (Stephanie Blythe), was loud, obscene—the lyrics to the song cannot be printed in a family publication—and so joyful. And the music had a wonderfully matched raunchy cabaret sound.

The principals of the performance, Ryan Speedo Green and Eric Owens were excellent in their roles.

Green, as the younger Griffith, had the athleticism to create a believable persona. More than that, though, he showed the confusion and vulnerability of a young man unsure of his way in the world the world, searching for a sense of love that his mother could never give him and that he would never get from the father who deserted the family.

As the elder Griffith, though, it was Owens who tied everything together. His obvious confusion over the simplest of tasks, his inability to remember what he was doing from moment to moment, would have created a feeling of loneliness, if not for his companion and adopted son Luis Luis Rodrigo Griffith, performed with a beautiful sense of compassion by Chauncey Packer.

The voices were very well matched to the performers. Owen’s voice in particular was effective in portraying the anguish of a man who pummeled another human being to death.

It was not until Griffith finally meets Paret’s son that he was able to still the demons of guilt that had ravaged him. He asks Paret’s son for forgiveness, but is told that the forgiveness he needs must come from himself. That is the moment that an elderly man, shuffling through life as he once danced in the ring, realizes that he can, in fact, forgive himself.

It was a heart wrenching yet beautiful scene and one that is a reminder that great theater carries with it the ability to see our shared humanity.

SEE ALSO: From Manteo to the Metropolitan Opera

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