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Sports And Live Theater: 'American Victory' Opens March 2 At ASU

The life of Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Henry Cejudo is chronicled in a play that opens this week at ASU.

Photo courtesy of Tim Trumble
Photo courtesy of Tim Trumble

Don't tell Alberto Ley acting doesn't hurt.

The young actor who portrays a Phoenix sports hero, Olympic freestyle wrestling gold medalist Henry Cejudo, dealt with neck spasms from actual mat work in recent rehearsals for "American Victory," a play about the life and historic achievement of Cejudo that opens March 2 at Arizona State's Nelson Fine Arts Center.

The production, written by José Zarate, an ASU graduate student in dramatic writing, is directed by fine arts faculty member Guillermo Reyes. With Ley playing the role of Cejudo, "American Victory" is adapted from the book of the same title, written by Cejudo and Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke.

The play has Cejudo's personal blessing -- he's attended a couple of rehearsals.

"He was laughing a lot. Most of it was kind of like remembering those little details," Ley said. "I think he was really impressed with the wrestling part."

The play not only chronicles Cejudo's victory in the 121-pound weight class at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, it also explores his childhood -- a difficult one at times with his mother and brothers in south central Los Angeles before the family moved to New Mexico and eventually Phoenix -- and gets more personal with scenes involving his ex-girlfriend.

Cejudo, who attended Maryvale High School on Phoenix's west side, had to come from behind in his earlier matches at the Olympics leading up to the gold-medal match. Now 25, he's training for the 2012 Games this summer in London.

Reyes said this is the first theatrical adaptation of Cejudo's story, and while there are some natural political undertones because of state laws that have targeted Mexicans and those of Mexican descent, the production is a story of human triumph by someone of that background with Arizona ties.

"It's an Arizona story, a young man who comes from undocumented (immigrant) parents. It was flying against all that negativity that we hear," Reyes said. "I don't want to just put on a play because of its politics."

"This was a boy that literally came from nothing and fought his way all the way to the Olympics, against all odds, and won Olympic gold," Ley said. "The fact that he won gold shows the fire, the intensity, the will to really go that far and succeed. I think that's a very powerful message, not just for the Hispanic community but for everyone."

ASU wrestler David Prado helped with the wrestling action for the production and plays the part of Tomohiro Matsunaga, the wrestler from Japan whom Cejudo defeated for the gold. There is a child actor who plays a younger Cejudo.

Zarate said writing the play interested him because Cejudo's story presents a side of the Latino community people don't often see.

"It was a good challenge for me because usually I do tend to focus on the negative aspects," Zarate said. "It was nice to focus on something positive."

Writing was personal for Zarate, who had similar experiences growing up. Like Cejudo, his parents faced a language barrier, he grew up in a trailer park and he experienced racism "from even other Chicanos towards Mexicans who came here as immigrants. So I'm glad he (Cejudo) brought that up in the book. We tried to keep it in the play."

Ley cited a comment from Cejudo in which he says he won the gold for the United States, and never really had resentment or anger toward the country of his birth despite adversity in his youth.

"He was actually very thankful in a way, because it was here where he was able to realize his dreams of going to the Olympics and succeeding," Ley said. "Even though he was Mexican and maybe people didn't see him or treat him fairly, he embraced what he was able to and made the best of the situation."

Ley is recovered from his neck injury and, true to sports vernacular, is expected to be active for opening night.

"Luckily I got better and I'm back in wrestling," he said.

'Audiences will be really able to relate to the story," Ley added. "Ultimately it's an inspirational story. Henry himself says it in the book, 'If I could do this, anybody can do it.' I feel like that message is very important."

"American Victory" runs March 2-3, 8-10 and 15-16 at 7:30 p.m., and on March 4 and 11 at 2 p.m. at Studio 133 of the Nelson Fine Arts Center on the ASU Tempe campus. Tickets are $8 to $16, with special rates for seniors and ASU faculty, staff and students.