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Fresh Ink explores an unlikely friendship in Nazi-era boxing world

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Playwright David Feldshuh came to the topic of his latest work from a slightly unusual angle. He became aware of the friendship between Max Schmeling, the German boxing heavyweight champion in the years leading up to World War II, and his manager, Joe Jacobs. It sounded like a good idea for a play.

“I researched it. There were four movies made about it, and plenty of people had written about it,” he says.

During his research, Feldshuh came across other intriguing details: Schmeling’s manager was an American. And Jewish.

“Very little has been written about this. It’s mentioned here and there, but he usually only warrants a few pages,” Feldshuh says about Jacobs. “I tried to imagine what this relationship between the two of them was like.”

Feldshuh’s piece, Yussle the Muscle: A Fable from the Sweet Science of Bruising, plays this week at the Illusion as part of the Fresh Ink series.

Both characters offered plenty of intrigue. “They were puppets in this gigantic maelstrom in the run up to World War II,” Feldshuh says.

To that end, Feldshuh added another character to the story: Joseph Goebbels, Germany’s “Minister of Public Propaganda and Enlightenment.”

“Max was a favorite of Goebbels. He was a guest at his house. So he was trying to sustain this relationship with Jacobs,” Feldshuh says.

Jacobs, an immigrant to the United States, “was a Runyon-esque character. He spoke English in fragments. He is exactly the kind of person you want to star in a play,” Feldshuh says.

The playwright has used history in the past. His work Miss Evers’ Boys — about the Tuskegee syphilis experiment where African-American men were infected with the virus for decades without their knowledge — was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

“There are elements of historical dialogue that pepper the plays, but it is really about the journey they take. [Schmeling and Jacobs] who, in real life, did care about each other and tried to sustain this relationship in the face of opposing forces,” Feldshuh says. “The problem with history is that it tends to be flat. It is just a series of events. You have to figure out where you are going to take your story.”

In part, that’s what Feldshuh hopes to see with the Fresh Ink run this week.

Beyond that? “The play is a blueprint. The actors fill things in. And how the audience reacts is another actor,” he says.

IF YOU GO:

Yussle The Muscle: A Fable from the Sweet Science of Bruising

8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday

Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts, 8th Floor

528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

$15-$20

For tickets and more information, call 612-339-4944 or visit online