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Playwright Marco Ramirez's The Royale is a rare and thought-provoking theatre experience. A mere 75 minutes, The Royale packs the kind of emotional punch that two and three hour-long plays struggle to land. (That's my only pun, I promise.)

The Royale is inspired by the 1910 "Fight of the Century" between the famously fast-talking African American boxer Jack Johnson and the retired heavyweight champion James "The Great White Hope" Jeffries. To this day, the world remains captivated by Johnson and the vigilante violence African Americans faced in the wake of his victory.

1st Stage favorite Jaysen Wright returns home to star as Jay "The Sport" Jackson, the African-American heavyweight champion. It's 1905 and the United States is still largely segregated. Wright spends the entirety of The Royale in tiny old timey tiny and tight boxing shorts; his physicality is fully on display. Like Johnson, Wright never stops moving and rarely stops talking.

Appropriately, The Royale begins with a fight. Jay squares off against Fish (Clayton Pelham, Jr.), an inexperienced boxer. Director and Choreographer Paige Hernandez's staging is ingenious; Fish and Jay stand side-by-side in the ring and shadow box. Hernandez's staging allows for Jay and Fish to address the audience face-to-face.

Fish delivers a heart-wrenchingly sincere inner monologue. Much like the real-life Jackson, Jay is as famous for his aggressive banter as he is for his lethal prowess as a boxer. Wright and Pelham may not be punching each other, but they are simulating a real-to-life boxing match. When a blow strikes true, either Pelham or Wright simulates taking a hit. Both men are sweating in the end, and the effect is engrossing and invigorating.

We never meet Jay's white competitor, but the play revolves around his all-consuming drive to fight the retired Heavyweight World Champion. Jay is flanked by a motley crew of supporting characters that inform his character development.

Jay experiences a moment of chilling clarity when his white promotor Max (Chris Genebach) lets slip that would-be assassins have been attempting to infiltrate his fights. Max is a bit of loose-cannon, at one point comparing the upcoming fight between the white man and Jay to a man fighting a Grizzly Bear. Jay is appropriately outraged, but later adopts the Grizzly Bear as an ironic spirit animal.

The Royale gets its name from Jay's manager Wynton's (James J. Johnson) life-story. As a young man, Wynton tells Jay about his experiences fighting in The Battle Royale, a Jim-Crow era practice of blindfolding young black men and making them bare-knuckle box until only one remained standing. The winner would have a minute to pick up coins thrown into the ring by the betting white men, but the victory would be hollow.

The pivotal moment of The Royale is when Jay's sister Nina (Lolita Marie) asks him not to fight. She warns him of the violence her sons face and the African American community will face whether or not he wins. Despite her pleas, Jay remains determined to fight and to win for a myriad of valid reasons, different from Nina's reasons, but no less valid.

Throughout The Royale, percussive clapping is utilized to heighten the tension, simulate audience enthusiasm, and raise our heart rates. It's highly effective in 1st Stage's smaller theater. I am a huge fan of 1st Stage Set and Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny's minimal set, which features a wooden, no-frills boxing ring. Jay rarely leaves the boxing ring, and the effect on the audience is transportative. If Jay can never leaves the ring, when does he get to stop fighting, either physically or metaphorically?

It's my third time bearing witness to Wright's talent, and every time I am happy to see his face smiling up at me from the playbill. The Royale's entire cast is noteworthy, but a highlight is when Johnson and Wright sing. Wright in particular has a notably passionate voice.

If you can't tell, I really enjoyed my time at 1st Stage last Sunday night. I've had several days to pick over this many-layered production, and every time I revisit it I have the pleasure of learning something new. The Royale is relevant and resonates through to the 21st Century, and is deserving of a foray to Tysons Corner.

Photo Credit: Jaysen Wright in THE ROYALE. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Running Time: 75 minutes, no intermission

THE ROYALE plays through February 23rd at 1st Stage located at 1524 Spring Hill Rd, Tysons, VA 22102. For tickets click here.


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