BWW Review: THE ROYALE at City Theatre Showcases the Power of Sports and Theatre in 75 Brilliant Minutes
I have often noticed a startling divide that begins at a rather young age between athletes and artists. It has always seemed like, at least in grade school, that the two worlds are treated as if they are the exact antithesis of each other. Not always, but in many cases, both sides indulge in belittling and tearing each other down through expletives and insults, whether about their intelligence and emotional capabilities or their size and sexuality. All of this because they didn't have the same hobbies, instead of trying to appreciate what makes both sports and art so encapsulating and brilliant. As somebody who has always been deeply enamored by both worlds, I have always found this divide absolutely ridiculous. Neither side has ever sat back and examined how similar they really are.
The thing that makes sports so great is watching Antonio Brown run 67 yards into the end zone for a touchdown and watching him celebrate with a choreographed dance. It's watching the Patriots in the most recent Super Bowl come back after being down 25 points in the second half, or watching Odell Beckham Jr. dive backwards and catch a 50-yard touchdown pass with three fingers. Or watching the Cleveland Cavaliers being down 3-1 in the NBA Finals to the greatest regular-season team EVER only to have LebRon James rally and bring his city a championship. Or watching the Chicago Cubs rallying down 3-1 to win their first World Series in 108 years. The Baltimore Ravens kicker, Justin Tucker, sings opera. Victor Cruz competes on dance shows. Russell Westbrook, Cam Newton, and Conor McGregor all dress so flamboyantly that they have become fashion icons. Theatricality is EVERYWHERE in the sports world. It's what makes fan-bases so passionate and what makes sports so enjoyable.
And then there's the arts. And though some artists like to deny it, the fact of the matter is that it's extremely competitive being an artist. Every time an actor walks into an audition room, he is competing to show a casting team what sets him apart from the 30 other guys who look and sound just like him that auditioned an hour ago. Artists compete for the opportunity to showcase their talents. And the only way artists ever get the opportunity to have their talents featured is usually through hard work and countless hours of honing their craft, similar to the way an athlete will spend hours everyday lifting weight and conditioning their bodies. To succeed in their desired profession, an artist has to have something deep within them that motivates and forces them to work to accomplish their goals. It's one in the same with sports. Art is nothing without competition, and sports are nothing without the theatricality. They are dependent of each other to make both sports and art great, and I have always wondered why more people don't feel the same way after watching a good play as they do after watching a great football game. And that's where City Theatre's most recent production of THE ROYALE comes into the picture.
THE ROYALE (by Marco Ramirez) is a brilliantly crafted 75-minute play about the story of Jay Johnson (Desean Kevin), an African-American boxer and current Heavyweight Champion in the African-American division that aspires to be the undisputed champion across every division. Inspired by the life of Jack Johnson, THE ROYALE follows the story of Jay as he deals with racial inequity within the sporting world, struggles within his family because of his success, and the impact that Jay has on African-American culture, all-backed by a startlingly strong ensemble and powerful directorial vision.
As Jay, Desean Kevin is filled with gusto and verve and manages to be a ridiculously commanding presence every moment that he's onstage, which is essentially the entire show. He depicted a physical prowess that is often uncommon for performers, while still managing to reach and maintain impressive emotional heights. His final fight had me on the edge of my seat the entire time and the monologue he delivers in the second round of his final fight was just stunning. As Jay, Kevin was just so watchable. There is no doubt in my mind that he had every single person in the audience rooting for his victory at the climax of the show and the result of that fight and his reaction afterwards was so powerful that it moved me to tears.
Jay's corner-man, Wynton, is portrayed by Tim Edward Rhoze. Rhoze is very believable as the seasoned boxing veteran who always operates with Jay's best interests at heart. He and Kevin have truly spectacular chemistry together onstage and it genuinely appears as if they have been not only working together for years, but have been close friends for years in this production. There is one point in the show where Jay is answering media questions and Rhoze is coaching him mentally as if Jay was in a boxing match and the timing between the two actors just makes for a wonderful moment. Rhoze singing Son House's "Grinnin' In Your Face" was incredibly effective and his monologue near the end of the show before Jay's final fight is also delivered exceptionally.
Bernard Gilbert portrays Fish, the young rookie who Jay beats at the start of the show. Though Jay disposes of him, Fish is the first fighter to give Jay any sort of a challenge in a long time and because of that, Jay brings Fish onto his team to train with him. At first, audiences would probably expect the show to be about their rivalry, and in a typical movie or a show about boxing, the audience would probably root for Fish to eventually beat Jay at the show's conclusion. Instead, the two become friends organically as they train with each other and watching their dynamic unfold makes for one of the more rewarding aspects of the production. As Fish, Gilbert approaches everything he does with a contagious amount of infectious energy and passion. As impressive as that way, his emotionally vulnerable moments are even more striking and the way his story concludes was utterly heartbreaking.
Andrew WilLiam Smith was delightfully smarmy as Max, the Bruce Buffer of THE ROYALE. He's the Ring Announcer and the man who negotiates and set up the fights for Jay. He has some painfully tense moments with Jay and he seemed to be always thinking and scheming, which made for some nice moments. The show also had a two-person ensemble consisting of Tony II Lorrich and Siddiq Saunderson and although neither of them had a line in the entire show, they were the through-line that helped make the experience so strong. They were always onstage, observing and reacting to the events taking place onstage and they were always fully immersed in what was going on. Their hand thumping and foot stomping added a consistent heart-beat throughout the entirety of the production which helped make the emotional moments and fights much stronger and intense. The work they did really resonated with the audience.
As Nina, Jay's sister, Bria Walker has the difficult role of making the audience care about her even though she gets introduced in the show right as it is about to end. With that in mind, Walker was absolutely exceptional. She had incredible chemistry with Kevin's Jay and managed to affect him to the point of getting him to drop all of his barriers and his walls and to warm-up some. Her pleas to Jay to throw his fight for her and her family were perfectly motivated and earnest and although nobody wanted to see Jay lose, Walker was so strong that nobody wanted to see her hurt in any way. I won't get into spoilers but the way in which she is featured in the final fight is just jaw-dropping. Truly excellent work.
Stuart Carden's careful and crisp directing is much of what makes this production excel. Everything is motivated. Everything flows seamlessly. Every choice is strong. And every stage picture is memorable and exciting. From the moment the show begins, you can feel energy pulsating through the room and I believe it takes a director like Carden to create that. Brian Sidney Bembridge does really strong and clean work with the lighting design in this production, especially during Jay's interview moments and during the fights. The final lighting moment on Jay is absolutely breathtaking. Mikhail Fiksel does equally great work with the sound design, from the sounds of cameras taking pictures to bells ringing between rounds and especially the faded sound of a crowd cheering at the end of the show. K. J. Gilmer appropriately costumes the cast. Stephanie Paul probably has the most challenging technical role as the Body Percussion and Movement Choreographer. The fights looked brilliant. She managed to get her actors to look like trained fighters. The body percussion is possibly one of my favorite things I have seen in a show in a very long time and I can only imagine how difficult it was to perfect, but her actors managed to.
THE ROYALE has something to offer to everybody. For somebody who doesn't love theatre and art but likes sports, THE ROYALE features a brilliant story about a groundbreaking boxer who beats all of the odds and becomes the sole champion of his weight-class with some thrilling fight sequences. For somebody who loves theatre but never really understood the hype behind sports, THE ROYALE offers a deeply emotional and captivating character-driven tale about African-American identity and struggle and some truly exceptional acting. And for the people who love both sports and art, THE ROYALE will provide you with one of the most encapsulating and visceral theatrical experiences in recent memory.
My favorite line from THE ROYALE was this: "Not in black history. Not in white history. In something bigger... In sports history." I found comfort in this line. It reinforced one final way that sports and the arts are similar: No matter how insane the times may be, whether politically or otherwise, both sports and art can overcome struggle and strife and bring people from all walks of life together to experience something. You can be white or black, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, religious or atheistic and still enjoy the theatre and enjoy sports. Nothing is inclusive and nobody has to be boxed into anything, and I think that's really awesome and important. THE ROYALE at City Theatre exemplifies this. Go and see it.