BWW Review: Arizona Theatre Company Presents THE ROYALE ~ Floats Like A Butterfly And Stings Like A Bee!
Before Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship title in 1966 just for having a conscience, Jack Johnson was begrudged his claim to it in 1908 by Jim Crow whites because of his race. The odium spurred calls for a "great white hope" to emerge and "reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race." The savior-apparent was former champ James Jeffries who succumbed to the fans' pleas and returned to the ring only to be soundly defeated by Johnson in 1910.
The Galveston Giant's ascendance as the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion would not come without a price ~ whether in terms of public riots or his later conviction and imprisonment on trumped up charges of indecency. (Ironically, in a quirk of history, it was Donald Trump who, in 2018, posthumously pardoned Johnson.)
Johnson's epic struggle of a man pitted against society inspired Howard Sackler's 1967 riveting Tony and Pulitzer Award winning drama, THE GREAT WHITE HOPE, featuring James Earl Jones as the fictionalized champion, Jack Jefferson. The classic (subsequently adapted into film) revolved around the chaotic aftermath of the boxer's victory ~ his relationship with a white woman, his prosecution under the Mann Act, and his controversial final bout.
Nearly fifty year later, the boxing legend's story inspired THE ROYALE (Arizona Theatre Company's 53rd Season opener), Marco Ramirez's poetic and kinetic fable about a similarly conflicted but eminently courageous fighter, Jay Jackson.
The two plays are equally compelling in their relevance, both as reflections on racism, individuality, breaking boundaries, and the complexity of personal relationships. It is natural to see in THE ROYALE echoes of THE GREAT WHITE HOPE and in doing so to recognize the difference in the depth of writing by which the tales are told. They speak to different pivotal moments in the champ's career, but the themes are parallel. The portrayals of Jack Jefferson and Jay Jackson are similar ~ fleet-footed, self-assured, and determined heroes.
But here's the difference that, for this reviewer, detracts from THE ROYALE's overall effect. While thematically it will surely speak to the audience's rage at the perpetual inequities and injustices of racism, Ramirez's script is thin and overwrought, even tedious at times, as the characters in Jackson's orbit recapitulate their assigned themes and the play becomes an echo of itself.
The play weighs heavy like the steady beat/beat/beat of a tom tom but lacking variation ~ albeit the kineticism of the work is accentuated by the rhythmic hand claps and foot stomps that inject emphasis into the play's pivotal moments. There are flashes of humor, notably when the boxer strikes a championship pose for unseen photographers.
Having said this, the performances in this production, directed by Michael John Garcés, are surely forceful and compelling.
Bechir Sylvain delivers a magnetic and muscular portrayal as the champ, reminiscent, it must be said, of the bravado displayed by the young Jones decades ago.
Poised for the big match of his career and struggling with the consequences of his notoriety, he is beset by the pressures and expectations of his main supports. He is egged on by his scheming stentorian promoter (Peter Howard), idolized by his sparring partner (Roberto Antonio Martin), encouraged by his manager (Edward Lee Gibson), and challenged by his devoted sister (Erica Chamblee) to consider the consequences of his ambition.
Praise too goes to Misha Kachman's spartan but elegant set, equipped with gymnastic apparatus and a ring that hydraulically lifts to give focus ultimately to the main event.
Thanks to strong performances and technically proficient staging, THE ROYALE, while neither raging nor bullish, manages to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
THE ROYALE runs through October 20th at the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix.
Photo credit to Tim Fuller ~ L to R: Erica Chamblee, Roberto Antonio Martin, Peter Howard, Bechir Sylvain, Edward Lee Gibson