Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
October 17, 2014
They had me at Round One. “The Royale,” by Marco Ramirez, is about one of the most dangerous and deadly sports – boxing, which is to say, bashing someone’s brains in – but there’s something irresistibly primal and visceral, rhythmic and ritualistic about the play.
The stakes here are especially high. The drama is loosely based on the life of Jack Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight champion. The real-life, historical bout took place in 1908, and the costumes in the Old Globe production appealingly reflect that era.
The central character, Jay “The Sport” Jackson, has Jack Johnson’s reputed patter and swagger. But Ramirez, a writer for “Orange is the New Black,” is trying to get inside the guy’s head… to explore not only his confrontational confidence, but the doubt and fear that bedevil him just as he tormented his opponents.
In the Globe’s stunning production, everything is symbolic. Clapping and stomping rhythms mark the bouts. There’s not a single actual punch thrown. But the magnificent staging of Rachel Chavkin makes us believe we’re seeing a fight, even when the person on the other side of the ring is pure fantasy, not the retired white champ of history, but a cautionary stand-in: Jay’s sister, warning him of the consequences of what he’s about to do. The admonitions proved prescient, even if they exist in the heavyweight’s imagination, as Ramirez conceives it. After Johnson’s victory, racially motivated killings erupted nationwide.
The scenario resembles recent events, like the election of an African American to the world’s most powerful position. Six years later, some people still don’t accept that fact. So this drama isn’t just creative anachronism. It’s relevant American reality.
The spare, square boxing ring fits perfectly into the arena stage of the White Theatre, the five actors are uniformly outstanding, with killer performances by Robert Christopher Riles as “The Sport” and Montego Glover as his sister.
Don’t miss “The Royale.” It’s a knockout.
“The Royale” runs through November 2, in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre.
©2014 PAT LAUNER