BWW Review: Boxing and Elegant Moves Join Forces in MKE Rep's Powerful THE ROYALE
Two men enclosed in a boxing ring--one black and one white-vie for the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship and a transformative match that might knock out race relations for decades to come. Milwaukee Repertory Theater imports Marco Ramiriez's The Royale to the Stiemke Studio in sophisticated style starring David St. Louis playing the African American boxing champion Jay "the Sport' Jackson. Jay Jackson represents the actual heavyweight champion Jack Johnson who defeated the previous World Heavyweight champion, Jim Jeffries, a white man, on July 4, 2010 to win freedom for the black boxer. In the stunning Rep production, Ramirez's script loosely retells the story that changed the course of boxing history where Jackson became the first African American Heavyweight Champion in an era when the Klu Klux Klan lynched black men for merely the color of their skin.
For those Milwaukeeans believing boxing might be violent, The Rep beautifully choreographs this story to rhythmic beats. with hand clapping and foot stomping, instead of any actual punches, which creates the dance to the sport instead of those body blows. Director Kevin Ramsey coordinates every aspect of Scott Davis' scenic design, Alison Siple's' costume design and Thom Weaver's lighting design (including a backdrop of 48 lights, the number of stars in the 1910 American flag), to create stellar effects around the one boxing ring on center stage, adapted to how this might appear in 1910. The team collaborates so seamlessly, the production flows through approximately 90, no intermission minutes with lean, pure dramatic tension.
St. Louis epitomizes his Jackson persona who loved boxing, looking good and women. His athletic well honed, boxer body contrasts well with his sparring partner, Fish, played by Xavier Scott Evans. The two men, who eventually support each another, celebrate a trademark moment on stage before the "big match" when Fish buys Jackson a portable gramophone to play his music on--the two "boxers" cavort in an unexpected joyful dance, reveling to "A true friend is hard to find."
As his coach and trainer Wynton, Cedric Turner creates a fatherly figure for St. Louis' Jackson while his white manager Max, a compelling John Gregario, hits every punch in sports promotion for what was billed "the fight of the century" while he bribed hoteliers to allow Jackson to stay in white only establishments. During the Rep-in-Depth before the show, Sade' E. Moore states the actual match created racial turmoil along with freedom, and as Jackson's sister, she "brings the feminine spirit" to a very hard hitting statement on racial and social equality.
In Moore's role as Nina, Jackson's sister appears to Jay right before the championship match. Her two young sons, Jackson's nephews, have been threatened if he beats his white opponent. The scene moves the audience to the critical nature of challenging the status quo, in 1910 and now. Moore then gracefully spars with Jackson in a scintillating performance meshing Jackson's personal and pubic personas, and the demonic shadows haunting him, even when boxing in the ring. The final match twists Jackson's childhood memories and subtly shows how these events influence adult behaviors and dreams--a microcosm of sports psychology presented during this theatrical boxing match.
The production elegantly revisits past sports history resounding with contemporary influence in how race affected this sport, and all sports, even after a measure of freedom was hard fought and won. One man, supposedly with the "wrong" color skin, loves a sport where no one can challenge his abilities, and he will give his life to make his dream happen. A point proven in the play when guns are confiscated at all Jackson's exhibition matches because there were threats on his life. Transforming culture, sports or otherwise, may cost lives, then and in contemporary society where this age old black and white war moves outside the ropes of the ring.
The Royale transforms boxing into an intimate personal match between race and culture, performance and persevering, despite the consequences placed on one's life to change future history and any social mores in the process. In Ramirez's play, individuals pursue a dream that resonates far beyond the rope confines of the boxing ring to provoke challenging men and women, young adults and especially those who enjoyed watching Joe Lewis or Muhammad Ali, with pursuing a dream despite the personal cost. What an exciting opportunity to cheer alongside this powerful drama, a dramatic surprise enjoyed for the elegant presentation that will be remembered long after the bell at the last round.
Milwaukee Rep presents The Royale in the Stiemke Studio at the Patty and Jay Baker Theater Complex through November 6. For special events, talk backs, performance schedule or tickets, please call: 414.224.9490 or www.milwaukeerep.com.