BWW Review: THE ROYALE at Olney Theatre Center - It's a Knockout!
It was 51 years ago I saw the Broadway production of THE GREAT WHITE HOPE which starred James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander. Seems like yesterday. The play dealt with the 1910 boxing match between the Black boxing champion Jack Johnson and the former White boxing champion and retired James J. Jeffries. It was amazing.
So I was intrigued when I saw that the Olney Theatre Center in conjunction with 1st Stage in Tyson's Corner, Virginia would be presenting THE ROYALE which brings back this subject in a very different method in a play written by Marco Ramierez.
THE ROYALE is a fictional tale about a Black boxer named Jay Jackson (the amazing Jayson Wright) who in 1905 dreams of becoming the first Black American boxer to fight for the heavyweight championship. To accomplish this feat, he desires to fight the retired White champion "Champ" Bixby, in retirement for six years.
When you walk into the small and intimate Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney you will see a boxing ring (with ropes on two sides opening into the audience). You can almost smell the sweat. Set and Costume Design by Debra Kim Sivigny.
There are terrific projections above the boxing ring and during the fights one can watch the cheering crowds via silhouettes. Great work by Kelly Colburn.
The play opens with Jackson's White promoter "Max" (the incomparable Chris Genebach) who serves as a narrator explaining what Jackson's desire to become a World champion. Clayton Pelham, Jr. plays opponent "Fish". "Fish" turns out to be a strong opponent to Jackson and lasts 7 rounds before losing. But Jackson is so impressed with "Fish", he gets him to be his sparring partner.
"Jackson" insists that his promoter "Max" get him the opportunity to fight the retired White champion "Bixby". But "Bixby" only agrees to the match if he retains 90% of the gate. That does not dissuade "Jackson" who agrees to the match.
Playing "Jackson's" manager "Wynton" is Jay Frisby.
Playing "Jackson's" sister is Lolita Marie who confronts her brother about possible ramifications if he prevails in the ring against Bixby. She is prescient for after Bixby's defeat, there were race riots and many deaths of Blacks throughout the country which is what occurred after Jack Johnson's victory in 1910. Even to this day, Black athletes have benefited in all sports due to the 1910 boxing match. Boxers like Sugar Ray Lewis and Muhammed Ali, golfer Tiger Woods, Olympic champion Jesse Owens, baseball star Jackie Robinson, and others owe their success in part to Jack Johnson
Do we ever see the boxer Bixby? No...it's all in the imagination as are all the punches. Thanks to the skill of Sound Designer Kenny Neal, every punch in the play is represented by a "woosh" sound that is so loud you feel the punch in the audience. It is one big shadowboxing evening that confronts the issue of racism.
Special kudos to the Fight Choreographer Cliff Williams III who works wonders with the actors.
Lighting Designer Sarah Tundermann does a masterful job.
Director Paige Hernandez directs and choreographs a memorable evening of theater.
The name of the play comes from "battle royals" in which Black men were blindfolded, put into a box ring, and the last man standing would recoup the coins tossed into the ring. Look for the amazing monologue by Frisby as he describes this demeaning episode which was quite common in the era.
Sarah Kiker is the Dramaturg and adds incisive information about the play in the program.
There are free Post Show discussions following the Saturday matinees on October 19 and 26.
On Saturday, October 19 at 8:15 p.m. there will be a free showing of the film "Creed" (the sequal to "Rocky") at Olney's Historic Theatre.
Next up at Olney is the musical SINGIN' IN THE RAIN directed by the IN THE HEIGHTS/Director/Choreographer Marcos Santana which runs Nov. 8 to January 5, 2020.
THE ROYALE continues until October 27, 2019. It runs an 75 minutes without an intermission. For tickets, call 301-924-3400.
Check out the Olney blog at www.olneytheatre/blog to learn more.