Men: Sharon Graci has an invitation for you to live out your childhood fantasies. The PURE Theatre co-founder and director of the wrestling themed play, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, says that after a performance, inspired audience members should not hesitate to climb into the ring and sling themselves back and forth between the ropes.
"Every man in the audience has a deep, abiding desire to get into that ring, and it has happened on more than one occasion," Graci says. "It's fun to run around and climb on the ropes. And how often do you get a chance to get into a professional wrestling ring?"
Chad Deity stands out for its subject: professional wrestling. Its lead characters are muscular, boastful men skilled in power slams and super kicks, which are acted out during the play just as they would be in an arena surrounded by thousands of screaming fans. But the play delves deeper into the characters' lives than the typical storyline of a staged wrestling show, exploring the psychology of ambition and the sociopolitical and racial undertones behind who gets to win in this sport where the results are predetermined.
PURE first staged Chad Deity last September, following its highly successful runs in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. In 2010, the play was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama, and writer Kristoffer Diaz was named a New York Times Outstanding Playwright. After receiving rave reviews in the fall, PURE opted to bring it back for a final run at Piccolo Spoleto. Local actor Michael Smallwood plays Macedonio "Mace" Guerra. He's the Washington Generals figure to Deity's Harlem Globetrotters, forced to take the falls and punches to ensure that Deity reigns supreme.
"It's a profession where you can get stuck," explains Smallwood. "The better you get does not necessarily mean that you're going to rise higher."
The actor should know — he's been closely following pro wrestling since his childhood days, when he idolized Bret "The Hitman" Hart. Prepping for the role included studying up on Latino wrestlers like Rey Mysterio and Eddie Guerrero, as well as drawing comparisons to current wrestler CM Punk, whose career mirrors Mace's as an underdog struggling to become the main attraction.
"It's been a dream role for me, having spent so much of my childhood and on into adulthood as a fan of professional wrestling," Smallwood says. "Now I don't watch it the way I once did — for the story and cheering for the good guys — but from an analytical perspective where I'm watching for the artistry. Every now and then, if I'm watching a good match, I just completely forget everything I know about it and get drawn up in the drama."
Even for someone already familiar with the moves, learning how to perform them was an entirely different story.
"A 'power bomb' is a terrifying move to have to actually do," Smallwood says. "They put me in the ring, put me in position for it and gave me some pointers, and then picked me up and dropped me four times in a row. There's a lot of adrenaline going, and it did hurt. I was just lying there on the mat, laughing, excited, and terrified."
To ensure that the wrestling would be realistic, Graci and her team turned to professionals. They found a retired wrestler living in Summerville, Kevin Phoenix, to train the actors, and brought in an authentic ring rented from wrestler "Fabulous Playboy" Bob Keller in Columbia.
The actors' bruises are authentic, as well. Christian Duboise, who plays Deity, returned to rehearsal after their first day of training with black-and-blue souvenirs around his hips from being slung into the ropes. He quickly invested in undershorts with extra cushioning. Smallwood's experience was no different.
"There was a two-and-a-half week period where my lower back was in complete and utter pain," recalls Smallwood. "Your hips hurt, your arms hurt, and your back is killing you."
Graci refers to the early days of training as "cringe-worthy" and even "horrific," but ultimately, the physical demands add to the actors' ownership of their roles. Because Chad Deity deviates so radically from a traditional play with its subject matter and performance style, it also carries the distinct ability to reach an audience beyond those who typically attend theater.
Graci recalls watching three college-aged attendees last fall who seemed a bit uncomfortable before the show started, but were immediately cheering and yelling once the play began.
"It starts with such a bang and is so electrifying," says Graci. "We delivered to them a whole different perspective of what professional theater can be."
At the same time, some potential theatergoers have felt hesitant about seeing a play based on professional wrestling, but Graci points to the universal idea that humans all have "the same hope and desire to find joy in life." To her, the overarching theme of Chad Deity is follow your dreams. In this case, that's framed in a case study of a handful of men dedicating their lives to the art of power slams and pile drivers.
"Who wouldn't want to see that?" asks Graci. "I think theater can be so many different things."