‘Blade to the Heat’ electrifies SDA 

This review contains spoilers.

At the top of the night, when the audience at the Scene Dock Theatre was told by an overly charismatic announcer over the loudspeaker to enjoy the evening’s “title match,” they knew they were going to be in for a treat.

“Blade to the Heat” written by Oliver Mayer, professor of dramatic writing and associate dean at the School of Dramatic Arts, opened this semester’s show season with a bang, brought to audiences by SDA’s very own MFA Repertory year three students. 

The play follows Pedro Quinn (Cameron Murphy)’s journey through the boxing world of the Black and Indigenous people of color community in 1959, as he struggles with his image and sexuality while constantly being bombarded by toxic hypermasculinity. 

With most of the action set in the boxing ring, director and fight choreographer Edgar Landa, who also works as an SDA faculty member, distinguishes different scenes through incredibly subtle changes in staging. 

Right off the bat, the show begins with imitation singer Garnet (Stephen Humes) in the midst of his performance on a makeshift stage, depicted through the opening of sliding doors further upstage from the boxing ring. While serenading the audience with his live vocals throughout the majority of the play, Humes’ background is splashed with color, from blue to pink, courtesy of lighting designer Josh Epstein, another SDA faculty member, to indicate the switch from a dingy old boxing arena to a more lively club setting.

Epstein’s lighting prowess is also essential to the success of the inevitable fight sequences in this boxing-inspired production. During Pedro’s match to compete against his boxing rival Mantequilla (Kumar Rohit) for the champion title, audiences are subject to the emphasis on the intensity, and intimacy, between the two fighters. To highlight this, a special light that lines the perimeter of the boxing ring switches on to indicate that a fight is in progress, and switches off when the story moves into a different scene outside of the boxing arena, or to simply show that there is no fight in progress. 

During the actual matches, however, Landa creates intensity and intimacy between the fighters through the use of slow motion. 

Slow motion, often seen in action films, is objectively challenging to carry out on stage, considering how audiences have to put in more effort to willingly suspend their disbelief during a show and it is much more entertaining to see two people fight if it looks real. Landa solves this problem by having the actors perfectly time their movements, implementing smooth transitions between actions with different speeds.

On the topic of intimacy, deep relationships between multiple characters riddle the show. The actors’ chemistry between Jack (John Stephens) and Alacran (Oscar Enrique Gonzales Torres), and the struggle between ill-fated lovers Pedro and Garnet, whose relationship was ripe with sexual tension. 

Notably, in scenes that take place outside the boxing ring, such as a passionate encounter between Pedro and Garnet, Murphy and Humes keep the same intensity and intimacy between themselves as if they were in a match. Both balance how much energy to give the audience at any given moment, and ultimately find the right combination to keep the audience silently engaged and empathetic.

“Blade to the Heat” tackles issues present within the BIPOC community and the queer community. The monologues given by Jack and Alacran toward the end of the show give audiences insight into the absence of choice members within these communities endure when fighting to survive in society at large. The play’s usage of a boxing metaphor also implies that, although BIPOC individual’s constantly have to fight for themselves, following the boxing ring metaphor their efforts to survive are often seen as pure entertainment for their white counterparts. 

Overarching the play’s plot, “Blade to the Heat” reveals that BIPOC communities are heavily embedded with hypermasculine expectations. Much of this concern fuels the show’s action, primarily through Pedro’s storyline. For Pedro, the audience follows not only his journey through the BIPOC boxing world, but also through consequences he faces (and relationships unfortunately destroyed) as a result of being queer in a hypermasculine profession. 

Although the play successfully addresses issues that are not otherwise the center of attention in most theater pieces in a white-dominated industry, Pedro’s arc could be viewed as falling into the trope of queer unhappiness, especially with a lack of empowering queer stories on stage as it is.

Overall, despite its missed opportunity to empower the queer community through Pedro’s character, “Blade to the Heat” successfully tackles issues of importance that members within the BIPOC community face everyday.