MRT’s “Royale” Packs A (Emotional) Punch

 

‘The Royale’ – Written by Marco Ramirez; Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian; Scenic Design by Lawrence Moten; Costume Design by Miranda Kau Giurleo; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow; Sound Design by David Remedios; Fight Choreography by Kyle Vincent Terry. Presented by the Merrimack Repertory Theatre at 50 E. Merrimack Street, Lowell through October 9

 

If you’re not a fan of the sweet science – boxing – or sports in general, please don’t let that deter you from seeing Merrimack Rep’s emotionally engrossing season opener, The Royale, playing now through October 8th at the Nancy L. Donahue Theater in Lowell. The Royale is not only a great play with sports at its heart, it’s quite possibly the best drama I have seen on any of Greater Boston’s large stages this year. It also manages to create all of the excitement of an epic championship fight without a single punch being landed.

Like Raging Bull (minus the violence) Royale is about so much more than boxing, and although it’s set at the turn of the 20th century, the same themes still resonate today, as we saw this past weekend with the Trump/NFL “take a knee” firestorm. Based loosely on the (far more complicated) story of Jack Johnson, who became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908, playwright and TV writer Marco Ramirez (“Orange is the New Black”) efficiently strips this fictional account down to its dramatic essence. Like Johnson, protagonist Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Thomas Silcott) is the best heavyweight boxer of his time, but he also shares some of Johnson’s other traits – such as a flashy lifestyle and a preference for white women – which doesn’t play well during the “Jim Crow” era with the white (or black) public. Still, given the popularity of boxing, he is perhaps the most famous black man on earth.

 

Following another systematic drubbing of a feisty but lesser opponent (Fish, played by Toran White) on the Negro boxing circuit, Jackson is no longer satisfied with simply being the Negro heavyweight champion, something his promoter feels should be good enough for him. “You’re a colored man on page 5 (of every newspaper). What more do you want?” asks Max (Mark W. Soucy), his promoter/manager. “The front page,” replies Jay, and with fame and fortune on his mind – and not necessarily civil rights – he commands Max to make that happen.

 

Despite his misgivings about the societal implications of the potential fight, Max returns with a lopsided purse agreement from the camp of Bernard “The Champ” Bixby, Jay surprisingly accepts, and the “Fight of the Century” is on. But instead of taking the traditional “sports as metaphor for life” path of showing Jay bravely preparing to strike a blow for equality of the races, Ramirez takes us inside the heads of Jay, his sage trainer and friend Wynton (Jeorge Bennett Watson), his new sparring partner Fish, and most importantly, his estranged sister Nina, whose concerns about the bigger picture really give this absorbing work its prodigious dramatic weight.

 

The staging of the play is remarkable, in that the fighters face the audience instead of each other, and as they bob and weave, there is a synchronized clapping by the remaining cast members to heighten the rhythm and intensity of the fight. And when a fighter lands a telling blow, he gives a single loud stomp, which sends his opponent reeling with its force, preserving all of the thrilling action without any of the graphic violence. Equally imaginative is the verbalization of the internal stream of consciousness by the fighters as they circle and strike.

 

Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian (who copped both Eliot Norton and IRNE Awards last year for Best Production for her direction of The Convert at Central Square Theatre) maintains a perfect pace for this fast-moving and affecting piece, and the performances by the cast are uniformly excellent. Silcott captures the essence of the complex character of Jay, as he exudes confidence and bravado of when he’s conducting psychological warfare on his first opponent (before destroying him with his fists) or granting a dignified interview with the press – while adding a dash or two of Muhammed Ali. But it is what he does in the moments of fear and doubt that really elevate his performance, whether reacting to the news that the promoter is routinely confiscating handguns from audiences looking to take him out at exhibition matches, or the riveting scenes with his sister Nina.

 

As Max, Soucy delivers a terrific performance as a combination counselor/commentator/carnival barker (“The man who casts a shadow in the dark – your Negro Champion, Jay “The Sport” Jackson!”), and White beautifully projects a youthful naïveté as Fish. Watson gives an understated performance as Jay’s calming influence, and his monologue that explains the play’s title is painfully moving. But it is Ramona Lisa Alexander’s supporting performance as Nina that lifts The Royale into the “don’t miss” stratosphere. Her plea to Jay to consider the repercussions of his winning the fight is nothing short of brilliant. “I think you are so caught up in playing David to Goliath, being the one fish swimming upstream, that you up and forgot about the rest of us – the ones that ain’t as strong as you,” she tells Jay as he prepares to step into the ring, driving home the reality with the force of one of Jay’s knockout punches.

 

At the conclusion of the performance, my companion (who is not usually given to emotional outbursts) fought back tears. That’s how powerful this production is. In light of recent – and ongoing – political events, The Royale gives a brilliant perspective on how far we haven’t come, but it’s also great entertainment. See it. For more info, go to: http://www.mrt.org/

 

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