Review By Heather E. Rosen
The adrenaline and tension of a live boxing match. A sport and also the subject of widespread betting, boxing brings two confident athletes into a small space for the sole purpose of intentionally inflicting pain upon each other while spectators cheer them on. The match will prove who is stronger. They bob, they duck, they weave, and they hit as hard as they can to hurt their opponent so badly that that he must concede. What would motivate someone to become a fighter…to participate in this sport in which they are almost certain to be injured?
The Royale by Marco Ramirez brings us ringside into the retelling of the real-life 1910 fight between Negro Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson and the then-retired Caucasian world Heavyweight champion Jeff Jeffries, who some called “The Great White Hope”. The story is told from the point of view of Johnson, a strong, skilled athlete who along with his family and many other black people living in the United States, was also in a fight for their lives against racism.
This incredibly powerful play, which has already won two Obie Awards, an Outer Critics’ Circle Award, and a Drama Desk Award is must-see, not only because it tells the “behind-the-music” story about what haunted and motivated the famous champion, but also because it reminds us that change, even if it’s absolutely worth fighting for, can have some very ugly consequences.
Director and choreographer Paige Hernandez masterfully recreated the look and feel of Johnson’s fights, right down to the knockouts. The set, designed by Debra Kim Sivigny, included a boxing ring with moveable lanterns that allowed the actors to participate in the lighting changes, and two projection screens above and behind the ring that gave us a glimpse into what was going on outside of the ring and also in Johnson’s head. But what was totally unique about this show was the choreography. Somehow, Hernandez had the actors fight without touching one another, and it was totally believable. One fighter threw a punch and the other fighter’s face contorted. They were perfectly in sync with one another, and I could almost feel the pain of the man who was hit. It allowed the audience to see both men’s faces, and it also made me think about the pain that invisible, verbal jabs can inflict.
The acting was also superb. Standouts were Jaysen Wright (as Jay Jackson) and Clayton Pelham, Jr. (as Fish), who completely transformed into their roles as the boxers. Both extremely physically fit, their graceful movements and reactions to one another seemed absolutely fitting of a fighter. Another standout was Chris Genebach, who played Johnson’s manager and fight promoter, “Max.” Genebach seemed born for this role, fast talking and hyping up both the fictional crowd and the audience for the fight of a lifetime.
We knew the end of the story that was printed in the newspapers and also in the program – The Great White Hope finally agreed to fight Jack Johnson and Johnson won – but The Royale is really about the other fight – the one that most of us never considered because it never made it into the history books. And 110 years later, we wonder how much things have really changed. The challengers may sometimes look different, but the opponent – racism and hate – is still in the ring and also in the world around us, and people are still getting hurt. There is much to unpack here but The Royale does not preach, in fact, it is highly entertaining at every turn.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.