“The Royale” is a 90 minute blast of inventive staging that is “loosely inspired” (as we are told in the program) by the life of Jack Johnson, the first African-American to become heavyweight boxing champion of the world and at his peak at the beginning of the twentieth century the most famous black man in the world.
It is easy to see why “The Royale” playwright Marco Ramirez would be drawn to an outsized historical figure whose victories sparked race riots, and whose defiance of social convention – he married three white women — led to a trumped-up criminal conviction, exile and eventual imprisonment. Johnson delivered in the ring; he dressed fine and drove fast outside it. He would likely fascinate any writer – and he has captivated many: He was the inspiration for the 1967 play and subsequent film “The Great White Hope” by Howard Sackler which made James Earl Jones a star, and the 2004 biography by Geoffrey C. Ward and subsequent Ken Burns PBS documentary, Unforgivable Blackness.
So what does “The Royale” add to the abundant literature on the Champ? The answer is: not much. You can learn more actual and reliable information about Jack Johnson from a paragraph in Wikipedia than on stage at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse, and the playwright’s speculation about Jackson’s motivations smells like hooey.
What “The Royale” offers is intense and innovative theatricality directed by the extraordinary Rachel Chavkin (whose “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” will mark her Broadway debut in the Fall); designed by a team that makes us hear and feel the blows of a championship match without there being any actual physical contact on stage; and delivered by an exceptional five-member cast that includes two familiar faces – Clarke Peters from The Wire and Montego Glover from Memphis – and that features a memorable New York stage debut by Khris Davis as Jay “The Sport” Jackson.
“The Royale” focuses on the events climaxing in The Fight of the Century, the boxing match between Jackson and the undefeated – and white — champion called back from retirement. (In real life his name was James J. Jeffries; in the play, he’s Bernard “The Champ” Bixby.)
“The Royale” begins and ends with a boxing match, but unlike, say, “Rocky,” “The Royale” makes no attempt at a realistic depiction. We first see Jackson take on yet another contender, a newcomer named Fish (McKinley Belcher III), but rather than see them fight, we are privy to their thoughts as each faces the audience under a separate spotlight, accompanied by the fighters’ foot stomping and the cast’s rhythmic hand-clapping, augmented by Matt Hubbs’ sound design and Austin Smith’s lighting. This might sound hokey, but the stylized presentation works.
“The Royale” offers some twists that I won’t spoil, which help hit home the impossible position that the pervasive racism of the era foisted on a black man of extraordinary talent and unyielding personality. If the playwright is most effective in establishing the jazz-like percussive rhythms of the action, he also shows promise as a theatrical heavyweight in a handful of punchy lines.
“Are you targeting him specifically because he’s a white man?” asks a reporter of Jackson’s forthcoming championship fight (all white people, including Jackson’s fight promoter Max, are portrayed by Jack Lavelle.)
“I’ll fight anything you put in front of me,” Jackson answers. “Black, white, red or green…”
Wynton, Jackson’s trainer (Peters), adds: “Long as they climb in the ring, boy, they comin’ out purple.”
Click on any photograph by T. Charles Erickson to see them enlarged.
At Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
By Marco Ramirez; directed by Rachel Chavkin; sets by Nick Vaughan; costumes by Dede M. Ayite; lighting by Austin R. Smith; sound by Matt Hubbs; stage manager
Cast: McKinley Belcher III (Fish), Khris Davis (Jay), Montego Glover (Nina), John Lavelle (Max) and Clarke Peters (Wynton).
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
The Royale is scheduled to run through May 1, 2016