Crackerjack direction, superb acting, and a poetically potent script make Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, currently at American Stage, one of the best productions this critic has seen in all of 2017. Based, like the 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winner The Great White Hope, on the life of black heavyweight champ Jack Johnson, Ramirez’s play asks us to consider some ideas that the earlier work never addressed: The importance, to the black self-image, of its talented hero’s rise, and the danger, to those same African Americans, of angry white backlash. Achieving almost military precision from her actors, director Lisa Tricomi also manages to give us deep emotion, winning comedy and some of the most highly stylized “boxing” you’ll ever see on stage. And with five actors all on top of their game — led by the impeccable Aygemang Clay as “Jay Jackson” — there’s nothing but pleasure to be had from this drama’s 70 minutes. If only more new American theater were this moving and intelligent.
At the start of The Royale, we’re introduced to Jackson, about to get into the ring for his latest bout; his promoter Max (Richard B. Watson); his trainer Wynton (Kim Sullivan); and his opponent, Fish (Rich Lowe). The fight between Jackson and Fish is presented ingeniously: Both boxers, standing several yards apart, face the audience as they supposedly jab at each other, and when one lands a punch, a bank of lights flashes behind the back of the recoiling other. Of course, Jackson wins easily, and then makes known his real ambition: to fight the current heavyweight champ, white Bernard Bixby, ostensibly in retirement. Such a match seems unlikely: There’s never been an interracial title fight before, and Bixby will want so much of the gate it will seem an insult to accept his terms. But as we learn in a beautifully-choreographed scene between Jackson and his sister Nina (Rokia Shearin), the gifted fighter is motivated by a desire to reverse an instance of black self-hatred he witnessed when younger, and he’s resolved not to let anything stop him. Unless, that is, he’s convinced that his success might mean the endangerment of other, less pugilistically gifted African Americans. It’s this moral dilemma — lose by winning or win by losing — that makes the end of the play so rich, and that resonates long after the final word is spoken. And Jackson’s choice may tell us something about race relations even now.
Clay as Jackson couldn’t be better. This is a man who knows that he’s a better fighter than just about anyone else on earth, and he has all the brashness one might expect from such a figure. But he’s also good-natured, with a fine sense of humor and a willingness to keep the peace when no-one’s exploiting or threatening him. As his trainer Wynton, Sullivan once again shows us that he’s inordinately talented, especially when he reminds his momentarily perplexed boxer that success comes at a price: the broken lives of all the losers. As promoter Max, Richard B. Watson offers the best performance of his career, finding the bravado, the commitment and the anxiety of his complex character. And Lowe as Fish is jaunty, self-critical, and finally vulnerable: His steadiness and sincerity may not be relevant in a world of irrational hatreds. Shearin as Jackson’s sister Nina only appears late in the play, but she proves herself swiftly to be a powerful antagonist to the boxer’s ambitions. Shearin’s Nina knows that a bigoted America won’t let a black championship go unpunished, and she sees herself on a mission to warn her brother about the violence he may unleash. All this action takes place on Jerid Fox’s attractive abstract wooden set, which includes a large back wall studded with those lights I mentioned earlier. Trish Kelly’s period costumes include some impressively dapper two- and three-piece suits.
Finally, a note about the percussive element in The Royale: Throughout the play, dialogue is punctuated by clapping hands and stomping feet suggesting that the whole play, spoken though it may be, is actually a song of unusual duration. That director Tricomi has found a way to make this drumming seem essential is just another of her many successes, and another reason to see Ramirez’s play. Though Jack Johnson’s life has been dramatized before, this approach is, among other things, unique. I’m glad to have made its acquaintance — and can happily recommend that you do the same.
Mark E. Leib's theater criticism for CL has won seven awards for excellence from the Society for Professional Journalists. His own plays have been produced Off-Broadway and in Chicago, Cambridge, Edinburgh, and the Tampa Bay Area. He is a Continuing Instructor at USF, and has an MFA in Playwriting from the Yale School of Drama, where he won the CBS Foundation Prize in Playwriting. Contact him here.