Orrach is a boxer, tap dancer, storyteller, former Teatro ZinZanni performer and star of the one-man play In My Corner, which opens Friday. It’s a father-son redemptive tale, according to Hasse, based on the writings in Orrach’s journal. Together, Hasse and Orrach wrote the script, which caught the eye of Jeremiah Chechik (Benny & Joon, Diabolique, The Avengers (1998), plenty of recent TV episodes), who signed on to direct. Three musicians play Latin jazz as Orrach taps, punches, skips and shares his story of a Puerto Rican-Italian kid from the Bronx who finds his voice through the arts.
“I wrote a journal years ago to try to figure out what was going on because I wasn’t in a good place,” Orrach says. “It was very cathartic. I wrote for four days nonstop, and then let it go.”
Years later, Orrach asked Hasse, a San Francisco-based entertainment lawyer whom he describes as his “lady,” to take a look. He thought he saw the makings of a story, and Hasse agreed.
“The journal was stream of consciousness,” Hasse says. “So we talked about it. And I started to see the arc of the story. I wrote scenes. I’d read them. He’d do movement. We figured out where the story was better expressed in movement than words. We took words out, so the text was as streamlined as possible. We integrated the movement — boxing, jump rope — into the story.”
At the time, Orrach was finishing up the LEAP program at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif. LEAP is a BA program for dancers who’ve interrupted their studies for work and are back on an academic track. His theatricalization of his journal made a handy senior project. Then, unrelated to the school, the first version of In My Corner debuted in a 2008 production at San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts — without a director. It received media attention, great feedback, and two more performances in Oakland in 2009. A friend of Hasse’s connected her with Chechik, who was immediately drawn to the script.
“I like emotionally connected but very kinetic, edgy material,” says Chechik. “I like boxing. I like fighting. This is a unique project. It’s not a traditional one-man show. It’s a play in which Joe plays multiple characters.”
Orrach, Hasse and Chechik began working together, and after rehearsing for one month, they mounted a workshop at Skylight Theatre on June 30, 2012, for one night only.
“I was astonished at the overwhelming response,” Chechik says.
Soon, an offer came in from the Odyssey to present a future run. This Odyssey production, which continues through November 3, has a few more bells and whistles than the Skylight performance.
“We have lights now,” says Orrach. “We didn’t have anything but a chair, a boxing rig, Chechik’s mind and my body. Now, we have lights, sound and music.”
San Francisco-based Matthew Clark’s piano trio almost exists as its own character in the play. Orrach is in constant conversation with the rhythms. In one scene, he says he skips rope and taps as he delivers dialogue.
“The challenge was how to do it spare and theatrical,” says Chechik. “I come from film and TV. I started in theater, but I haven’t done a play in a long time. It’s interesting to convey a visual and emotional experience through a stripped-down process. It’s very cinematic. It’s paced like that. Visually, it’s really interesting. It’s all Joe.”
In My Corner centers around Orrach’s tumultuous relationship with his Puerto Rican father. Orrach grew up in a Puerto Rican-Italian (on his mother’s side) family in the Bronx. A street-smart kid who had trouble fitting in, Orrach guides us on his journey of finding the arts and, ultimately, finding his way.
“Boxing was first,” Orrach says. “I fought in the military. I was the U.S. Air Force welterweight champ. Then I was thrown out of the military. I turned pro, got scared and quit boxing. I had taken ballet for footwork in the ring. So I was driving a truck for my brother. I parked on 56th Street on Broadway and ran up the stairs to the New York Conservatory of Dance and never looked back. I saw Gregory Hines on PBS, and in my ignorance said, ‘Oh, I can do that’. Five years later, I was dancing with Gregory.”
In My Corner winks at Orrach’s street performer days as a tap dancer, and also offers a glimpse at his days in the ring. Orrach likes to move his hands and feet, and he finds similarities between the art form and the sport.
“Boxing is like a dance,” he says, “totally rhythmic. I trained to music, R&B. When I hit the speed bag along with the band [in the show], it becomes a musical instrument. Sugar Ray Robinson was a fighter and tap dancer. Tony Danza boxed a little and tapped.”
Along with tappers like Gregory Hines, Savion Glover, Jimmy Slyde and the Nicholas Brothers, Orrach looks to physical comedians like John Leguizamo and Bill Irwin for inspiration. What they all have in common, like Orrach, is that they’re extremely physical. Well, and Leguizamo is just so New York.
“I’m a dancer, but I’m not a dancer,” says Orrach. “My show is raw. It’s real. It’s emotional. It makes grown men laugh and cry. One of my talents is my heart chakra is big. I make a joyful noise on stage.”
Another talent of Orrach’s talents is how easily he can relate to people across color lines. Gravitating toward both tap dancing and boxing, Orrach has spent his life immersed in various cultures. “I look white,” he admits, “but soy boriqua. In tap, I gravitated toward black people. In boxing, I gravitated to black or Latino. I like the way they move and interact with one another, and the way they accepted me.”
The way Orrach describes In My Corner sounds like the show provides an emotional release both for him and the audience. Orrach pours sweat, punches, stomps and releases. Orrach explains that his tap dancing takes its cues from the live music. The band takes off and comes back, and he rides along with them, riffing off every note.
“Within the pockets, it’s alive,” says Chechik.
The creative team behind In My Corner has plans to move the production to New York after its LA run and says Savion Glover has been enlisted as a presenter.
In My Corner, Odyssey Theatre, 2055 Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles 90025. Opens Friday. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, through Nov. 3. Tickets: $25-30. www.odysseytheatre.com. 310-477-2055 ext. 2.
**All In My Corner production photos by Enci Box.