BWW Review: New England Premiere of THE ROYALE: Boxing for Dignity
Written by Marco Ramirez, Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian; Scenic Designer, Lawrence Moten; Costume Designer, Miranda Kau Giurleo; Lighting Designer, Karen Perlow; Sound Designer, David Remedios; Fight Choreographer, Kyle Vincent Terry; Production Stage Manager, Maegan Alyse Passafume
Performances through October 9 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org
A boxing drama, you say? How many theatre folks will be interested in that, you ask? What if I tell you that The Royale is a beautifully-written and acted story about a man's quest to get his due and make a difference, about the unforeseen consequences of his actions and the damage he leaves in his wake, and a stunning commentary on the rending of the American social fabric that continues to threaten our peace and tranquility? Merrimack Repertory Theatre rings the bell for the start of its 39th season with the New England premiere of Marco Ramirez's award-winning play inspired by the life of Jack Johnson, the first black man to fight for the title of World Heavyweight Boxing Champion more than one hundred years ago.
Jay Jackson (Thomas Silcott) holds the title of Negro Heavyweight Champion of the World, but he seethes with the ambition to get a shot at the retirEd White champ, to win the title that he feels he deserves. His manager, Wynton (Jeorge Bennett Watson), a former fighter himself, keeps his counsel, but stands by Jay's decision. Together, they compel their white promoter, Max (Mark W. Soucy), to push for the matchup, despite his nervous exclamations about the way things have always been. Meanwhile, Jay takes an up and coming young boxer (Toran White) under his wing after badly defeating him. Fish joins the team as Jay's sparring partner and assistant, getting some pointers from Wynton in the bargain.
Max negotiates a deal which heavily favors the champ Bixby financially, but Jay only cares about the fight. In the months leading up to it, he trains, fights exhibitions, and appears at numerous press conferences where they question his motivation, his ability, his integrity, and you name it. Nevertheless, Jay persists and conveys a polite demeanor, always maintaining his focus and keeping his eyes on the prize. The magnitude of his undertaking is lost on no one, but it takes a locker room visit from his sister Nina (Ramona Lisa Alexander) to personalize the situation and the potential consequences, both for his family and for people of color around the country. While he hears Nina's concerns, Jay is locked in on his mission and steps into the ring, for better or worse. Only then does it become clear what the fight is truly about, and it is far more than a trophy or a title.
MRT Director in Residence Megan Sandberg-Zakian leads the strong cast of five actors making their debuts on the Lowell stage. Together with the effective work of the design team, they create a conceptual arena for the physical battle and build the tension from a low rumbling to an all-out roar as the stakes are raised higher and higher. The playwright creates conflict on several levels; in addition to the actual fights, there is racial conflict - between Jay and Max, between Jay and the press, between Jay and the world; the relationship between Jay and Wynton hints at underlying philosophical differences which they choose to overlook; and Jay's internal struggle when faced with his sister's plea to back down. The sport of boxing itself is characterized by its duality, seen primarily as violent and barbaric, while also requiring strategy and athleticism.
The Royale gets its impact from three sources - the taut, efficient writing style of Ramirez, the intense relationships between the characters, and the broad social and racial implications of the so-called fight of the century. Individually and collectively, the actors create fully-realized characters who we care about, whether or not we are in accord with their motivations. Silcott stands tall and strong, never wavering from his quest to be the standard bearer for his race, nor apologizing for his stance. He conveys an urgency, albeit mostly under control, as he knows there is a limited window of opportunity for him to succeed. Although it appears to be all about his pride, he shows fatherly warmth with his willingness to extend a hand down to help young Fish climb the ladder behind him.
White is impressive and likable as the promising boxer, displaying a combination of cockiness and insecurity that play out on his face during his match with Jay. Watson captures the complexity of his character, someone who has seen the terrible nature of man, yet continues to quietly carry on fighting. As the white man clearing a path in front of his black client, Soucy gives a great performance that straddles both sides of a metaphorical Mason-Dixon line. He's loud, brash, and anything but humble about his abilities as a promoter, but conveys his discomfort and hesitancy when Jay pushes him to buck tradition and the mores of the time. (For context, the play is set between 1905-1910.) He lets us see that he thinks his guy deserves his shot, but his expression betrays his belief that it won't turn out well.
Alexander is present on the stage throughout the play, sometimes clanging the bell to indicate the start of a round in a fight, and sometimes as one of the voices in the crowd. When she finally enters the scene as Nina, shortly before the championship bout, she appears dignified and demure, as well as somewhat reluctant to be there. Her humble demeanor is in stark contrast to her brother's self-assuredness, but they share a loving, if distant, connection, especially when she proudly shows him pictures of her children. From that point on, she is the protective mother, and Alexander ramps up to a fever pitch in her effort to do whatever it takes to make Jay understand what's at stake. After Nina has her say, Alexander dials it back to exit calmly, before returning to stand in as the champ for the title bout scene.
A key element of the staging is the choreography (Kyle Vincent Terry) of the boxing matches that has the actors standing in pools of light, facing out to the audience, rather than engaging in actual fisticuffs. Lighting designer Karen Perlow and sound designer David Remedios provide effects that allow us to experience the excitement of the fight without the physical contact. The actors bob and weave, throw and receive virtual punches, and we hear the crowd's reaction throughout. The theatrical technique is surprisingly effective and perfectly synchronized. Despite the absence of the actual boxing, or perhaps because of it, the intensity of the script and the performances build dramatically, increasing the tension until the unexpected denouement. One might say the outcome could have been foreseen, especially in light of where we stand in terms of race relations in America today. However, it still feels like a punch in the gut, even from a distance of more than a century. The more things change, the more they remain the same.