BWW Review: The Tampa Bay Area Premiere of Marco Ramirez's THE ROYALE is a Knockout at American Stage
"Your name's gonna get written in history. And not in Black history. Not in White history either, Jay...In something better--In Sports history." --Max to Jay Johnson in THE ROYALE
Stephanie Gularte, the Producing Artistic Director of American Stage, should change her name to Nostradamus. During her first two and half years in our area, she has had her fingers on the pulse of tomorrow's national news. How did she know months in advance that Trump would win last year's election smack dab in the middle of a Trumpian re-interpretation of Moliere's Tartuffe? Odd as it may seem, whatever is about to happen, Gularte seems to already know tomorrow's hot topics by her play selections (think of last season's Informed Consent, when science and morality turned out to be the big discussion of the day, and The Invisible Hand, when terrorism was the topic du jour). And right now, during the very same weekend when black NFL players who sit during the National Anthem are called "sons of bitches" that should be "fired" by the President, how did she know that few plays address the subject of race and sports better than Marco Ramirez's THE ROYALE? I guess if you want a glance at tomorrow's headlines, then just look at the plays Ms. Gularte/Nostradamus has chosen for American Stage this season (a season labeled "We the People").
More than just its take on race and sports, THE ROYALE is one powerful piece of theatre. Jay "The Sport" Johnson, inspired by boxer Jack Johnson, is set to fight white favorite James J. Jeffries in 1910 to become the first black heavyweight champ. And the United States of America obviously isn't ready for this kind of change. "This is the fight of the decade," Jay's promoter, Max, says. "There's no precedent. Nothing close. This country's been waiting for this fight - whether they like it or not..." But this isn't a mere recreation of Johnson's life and loves, a la The Great White Hope. This is a play that showcases the reason that there is nothing quite like live theater. It's a total experience. Sure, movies can capture a fight's electricity (anyone who's seen the brilliantly choreographed fight sequences in Rocky or Raging Bull can tell you that), but the theatre goes beyond those in excitement, especially in THE ROYALE.
Although no punch is officially thrown in the realistic sense, the fight scenes of this show become works of art. We imagine the brutality of them, even though no actual blood is spilled. It's like a choreographed poetry slam, the dialogue bursting in syncopated rhythms, tribal drum beats, like hip-hop performed during the early years of jazz. Claps, chants, bells, stomps, all combine to create the adrenalin-pumping atmosphere of boxing. There's even a sitting tap routine with the three person ensemble--a Greek Chorus of claps, stomps and chants. "Since before I could read, and definitely before I could write, I've had rhythm in my blood," playwright Ramirez writes in his program note. "My parents tell stories of the syncopated way my toddler fingers would snap. Everything was an instrument. My school desk. The kitchen counter..."
With the musicality of the dialogue and theatricality of the piece, THE ROYALE feels totally new, fresh in the 2010's, and yet it works for the Jim Crow era as well. Two very different, very distinct time periods--one hundred years apart--successfully merge. And you can see the reverberations of Johnson in the African-American athletes who followed in his footsteps: the poetic swagger of Muhammad Ali; the Black Power fist-in-the-air protestations of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968 and Serena Williams in 2016; and even in the recent Colin Kaepernick controversy. THE ROYALE feels as contemporary as a Kanye West album, as "now" as a LeBRon James shot from the perimeter. Making 1910 feel like "today" is key: A century may have past, and yet we're still facing the struggle of a black man's place in a country that strains to keep its whiteness in power.
The performances are quite strong. Aygemang Clay is formidable and likable as Johnson. It's a physical role, quite a workout, and Clay owns every moment onstage. As his manager, Kim Sullivan knows no peer. I have seen Sullivan in several of the August Wilson Cycle Plays at American Stage, and he is a force to be reckoned with. Always bursting with life, he is a magnetic presence onstage, and yet totally anchored as well. In a way, he carries this show in the moments where he doesn't speak; few actors listen onstage better than Sullivan. And you could hear a pin drop during his stunning monologue that gives the show its title.
Richard B. Watson, another force of nature, is quite brilliant as the energetic promoter, Max. He also plays a variety of reporters throughout. utilizing the entire stage and various sections of the audience--each of these characters different, each given a specific quirk or vocal quality to separate them from the others.
Rokia Shearin holds her own as Nina, Johnson's sister. Her final scene--a literal knockout--is beautifully done, with perfect timing on her part. Rich Lowe is charming and quite funny at times as Fish, but sometimes we can't understand some of his lines when he speaks too quickly. Tato Castillo and Tarilabo Koripamo round out the cast as the Apprentice Ensemble.
The show is a brisk 75 minutes long, and you don't want it to end.
Director Lisa Tricomi Powers has a masterpiece on her hands, and she guides the play and its actors with great confidence. Terrific work. Jerid Fox's set is another feather in his cap--seemingly simple yet telling. The side stages with their stained glass windows give an almost church-like atmosphere, while the main staging area's walls are lined with circular paparazzi flashbulbs that illuminate at just the right moments (thanks to Joseph P. Oshry's exemplary lighting). Benjamin T. Ismail's sound design is most effective, sometimes jolting me out of my seat, and Trish Kelley's costumes are quite appropriate for the era.
Special attention must be paid to Carolina Esparza, the show's Movement and Sound Percussion Coach. When you see THE ROYALE, you will know exactly why I singled her out.
My one qualm with the show comes near the end, when the boxing match is being heard over the radio. This is a major anachronism because the first radio broadcast of a sporting event didn't occur until April of 1921 with a boxing match between Johnny Dundee and Johnny Ray in Pittsburgh. That's a full eleven years after the action of THE ROYALE. Yes, the play is meant to feel contemporary, but the specific time period still must be honored. And I don't know the need to add the faux radio angle when people of the 1910's knew the results of fights rather quickly thanks to Western Union, and the scene could have been just as effective utilizing that instead. But this is an issue with the playwright, not with the stellar American Stage production.
When the show ended, I sat paralyzed in my seat. Dazed. Chills ran up my arms, chills that lasted over an hour. After the audience leapt to its feet for a deserved standing ovation, I walked out of the theatre, astonished and astounded, muttering over and over, "Wow...wow...wow..." Judging from those around me, I was not alone in this reaction.
I have enjoyed or endured nearly a hundred shows this year--professional shows, community theatre productions and school plays. Although I've seen some great theatre, nothing has stood out as the best of the best. Oh sure, I've had various nominees for the #2 slot, but no show has earned the right to be awarded #1 by me. That is, until I saw THE ROYALE at American Stage. It is easily the best local play I've seen in 2017 so far.
THE ROYALE runs thru October 15th at American Stage. For tickets, please call (727) 823-PLAY (7529).