Ten years and 10 August Wilson plays (one per season) into his affiliation with American Stage, New York actor Kim Sullivan jokes that he might as well start shopping for real estate in the Bay area.
American Stage, he says, is “like an old pair of shoes. If I could work year-round, I’d be here for sure.”
After completing Wilson’s entire, exhaustive “American Century Cycle” in February, Sullivan’s back for the Marco Ramirez-penned drama The Royale, opening the season Sept. 20.
The artistic team at American Stage has grown quite fond of this particular thespian. He was asked to sit at “the table,” wherein prospective productions are discussed and chosen.
“No theater, in all my 50 years, has ever invited me to the table,” Sullivan says. “No one has ever taken my opinion about anything! But this theater said 'Kim, we think you might have some sense. Something we can use.'”
One of his suggestions was that while Black History Month — February — was all well and good, maybe they should think about doing more “black” plays throughout the year.
“And sure enough,” he says proudly, “here I am at the top of the season.”
Set in the early 20th century, The Royale is about Jay “The Sport” Jackson, a young African-American boxer trying to get ahead in the era of Jim Crow. Jackson is played by newcomer Aygemang Clay, who won South Florida’s Carbonell Award for his 2016 performance in this show.
It bears more than a passing resemblance to the real-life saga of Jack Johnson (1878-1946), the first black heavyweight champion.
What Johnson endured in those days — the violence, the threats of violence, the many ugly manifestations of all-too-prevalent racism — are common knowledge with the benefit of historical hindsight.
Still, director Lisa Tricomi says that while there are a lot of the Jack Johnson truths in The Royale, Ramierz has written about another, semi-fictional, fighter. Jay, she explains, “has a personal ghost. He has a wrong to right. That’s where his personal drama comes in, and the sacrifices he makes for the greater good.
“We just need to tell this story. And everything else that happens after that is really up to the audience. Up to the spectators," she says. "Because of what’s been happening recently in Charlottesville and beyond, it makes it so relevant. Because really, the message of the story from a hundred years ago is not very different from the message we’re currently looking at.”
Sullivan stars as Wynton, Jay’s trainer, mentor and confidante. Wynton learned to fight in the street, in the “battle royales” pitting young black boys against each other in a free-for-all.
“Poking, gouging, elbows and fists, stomping on feet, that kind of stuff,” says Sullivan. “Street fighting at its worst. They would blindfold them, send them into the ring and let ’em clobber each other for the money the white patrons would throw from ringside. That was the whole setup. And Wynton mastered it. He learned how to become a fighter by being a blindfolded kid who fought six or seven other kids in a ring. 'Til he was the last one standing.”
In The Royale, Jay trains with a sparring partner called Fish (played by Rich Lowe).
“Nary a punch is thrown — but it works, for all you boxing aficionados,” offers Sullivan. “It works just fine; but you have to see the way we pull it off. We have two great specimens of boxers up there, and they’ve studied very well. There’s nothing wrong with their fundamentals. I wouldn’t want to meet either one of them in an alley, quite frankly.
“They really know what they’re doing. And you begin to feel that they don’t actually have to fight. The fight is mental. And the fight is the struggle. It’s not a show about watching their fundamentals; it’s a show about watching the struggle of how they had to get to where they are — the hardscrabble beginnings that they had.”
Will Jay overcome the odds and go on to fight the reigning (white) champion?
“You want to get a white man to fight a black man,” Sullivan says. “It seems to me that’s the simplest thing in the world. Yet they held on like Confederate widows to not let us in. To maintain the idea that they were the top dogs, the top race, that they were better than us masculine menials. Even though they brought us over here to be menials. But no one ever wanted to deal with us mano-a-mano.
“Boxing is not really about that. It’s just about two athletes who have different skills. We, the fans, put our hopes and trust and all that on them, but it’s just the two guys in the ring squaring off.”
Meanwhile, Sullivan’s experiencing prejudicial stonewalls of his own.
“I’m trying to endear myself to all the local theater companies as best I can,” he explains. “But a lot of places are closed off to me because I’m new — I’m still the new kid. I’m so entrenched here that people begin to think, ‘Well, he’s just an American Stage guy.’ It’s funny how people think: You can’t do any other plays, because you cut your teeth on August Wilson. So it’s a little tricky.”
Bill DeYoung was born in St. Pete and spent the first 22 years of his life here. After a long time as an arts and entertainment journalist at newspapers around Florida (plus one in Savannah), he returned to his hometown in 2014. He is the author of Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay’s Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down and the forthcoming Phil Gernhard, Record Man. Contact Bill.