Shadowboxer takes place during the final moments of the life of legendary boxing champion Joe Louis Barrow, aka Joe Louis, as death overcomes him in his Las Vegas home. After having spent his last three years mostly confined to a wheelchair due to the cumulative effects of a debilitating stroke, Louis's heart suddenly fails him on the morning of April 12, 1981. The attack triggers a brief catharsis within him that releases a flood of pent-up emotions in the form of a series of vivid and often nightmarish memories. The ghostly sounds and images of his extraordinary life unfold in mental fragments that grow increasingly incoherent as his mind descends into chaos. Thus from the opening musical notes of the opera's first act - where Louis is introduced in his tattered bathrobe seated in his wheelchair - to the final moments of the second act curtain, everything and everyone seen and heard onstage is a product of his imagination.
The flashbacks of Louis's haunting memories reveal his personal history against the backdrop of American history. Louis lived in the public eye on the world stage during a crucial period of the twentieth century. His boxing career began in the midst of the Great Depression and continued up to and after WWII. By the time he became the youngest man to win the heavyweight championship in 1937, at age 23 he was already a hero in black America.
Throughout Shadowboxer Louis vividly recalls his meteoric and controversial rise to fame. As the second act unfolds, the memories of his divorces, debts, drug addiction and struggles with mental illness overwhelm his senses and force him ever closer to an inevitable reckoning with his own mortality. Yet even in the face of death, his instincts as a boxer won't allow him to go down without a fight. In the squared circle of his own thoughts, Louis battles with himself over his legacy and place in history until he breathes his last breath. His rise from humble circumstances; his legendary fights; his marriages and incessant womanizing; his financial successes and failures; his confrontations with racism and Jim Crow; his drug addiction and mental breakdown; and his final years as a host as Cesar's Palace are finally extinguished in his mind and memory as he goes down for the last count knowing he could not escape the price of fame, the problems of race and the terrors of his own inner demons.