BWW Review: The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Scores a Knockout with THE ROYALE
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis always provides amazing, intimate, and innovative shows for their Studio Theatre season, and playwright Marco Ramirez' THE ROYALE is certainly no exception. This is a fiercely creative work that features some sonic embellishment that provides a literal pulse to the proceedings. And, even though gloves never touch an opponent's flesh during the play, you'll feel the intensity of the sport of boxing come alive in a powerful way that will move you. The play takes the idea of a rising African American boxer at the turn of the last century (think Jack Johnson), and thus, when segregation was in place, and then gives it a twist. It's masterfully done. In fact, it's a knockout!
It's sometime between 1905 and 1910, and Jay is a black boxer who has fought all comers and defeated them. He wants to fight the champ, but this was a time when racism was firmly entrenched, making his manager's efforts to arrange a match all the more difficult. But, the day arrives and he receives his opportunity. His sister, Nina, shows up to make him aware of the things that have and will transpire if he defeats the champ. She's referring to the beatings, etc. that members of the black community will incur across the nation if he is successful in his bid. It's not what you expect her to say, but it rings horribly true, and it's distracting food for thought for Jay as he prepares for the fight of his life.
Akron Lanier Watson is cocky and confident as Jay, imbuing his character with a true sense of pride and a desire to reach the top of his given profession, no matter the cost. He's brash at times, but restrained as well, and his meeting with Nina is especially illuminating. Lance Baker brings a certain sleazy charm, that's not without a little slickness to make it sell, as Max, Jay's manager. Samuel Ray Gates is properly world weary as Jay's concerned corner man and trainer, Wynton. In a single story about a boxing "royale" he participated in, he manages to inspire Jay to reach for something more than he was ever able to attain. Bernard Gilbert does very nice work as Fish, a boxer who went up against Jay in a valiant effort, and is recruited by him to be his sparring partner. Bria Walker turns the story on its head with her appearance as Nina. After she speaks with Jay about the implications the results of his fight could bring, she then appears alongside Jay as "the champ", leveling charges at him that take him out of his game as he tries to fight. Maalik Shakoor and Jarris Williams provide additional support, and lead the percussive claps and stomps that bring this story to vivid life.
Stuart Carden's direction is flawless, with the staging and acting superb all around. The feel of the piece is truly captured, and aided greatly by Stephanie Paul's movement and body percussion. When combined with Brian Sidney Bembridge's creative scenic and lighting design, the action literally seems to come alive and rock the house just as a real match would. Christine Pascual's costumes are a perfect fit for the era involved.
A powerful statement about race is made in The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' production of THE ROYALE, and, sadly, it's still relevant and timely. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's a true triumph that will leave you pondering its layers long after you exit the theatre. The show continues through March 26 in the Studio Theatre at the Loretto-Hilton.
Photo Credit: Jon Gitchoff