By Sheila Barth
BOX INFO: Merrimack Repertory Theatre presents Marco Ramirez’s award-winning, 80-minute, one-act play through October 8, Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, 50 E.Merrimack St., Lowell.$26-$73. Senior, student, group, military discounts. Also additional events. mrt.org., 978-654-4678.
A superlative ensemble cast, under the direction of IRNE and Eliot Norton award-winner Megan Sandberg-Zakian, packs some powerful one-two punches and societal-racial jabs in playwright Marco Ramirez’s award-winning, 80-minute, one-act boxing drama, “The Royale”. The play is currently making its New England premiere through October 8 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.
Ramirez won the Obie, Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards when the play debuted off-Broadway in March 2016, at the Lincoln Center Theatre, and Lowell audiences are delivering standing ovations.
Ramirez based his play on a snapshot in time that occurred during controversial, authentic 20th century boxer John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, the Galveston Giant’s, boxing career, and hones in on his personality. Ramirez took dramatic license here, glossing over Johnson’s life and his cavalier attitude toward society.
According to biographical information, Johnson was one of nine children, born to former slaves-menial workers. He left home and school at an early age, worked odd jobs and eventually settled on boxing as a career. He loved winning, buying and wearing expensive clothes, like his White counterparts. Johnson also was quite the ladies’ man- flirting and cavorting with women. He crossed color lines three times by marrying white women. He had no children.
Johnson’s career pinnacled at the height of the Jim Crow era, when he was the first African American world heavyweight champion, 1908-1915. His fight against retired champion White boxer James Jeffries, July 4, 1910, was touted as the fight of the century. But after Johnson won, race riots erupted widespread, in major cities nationally, injuring hundreds.
Striving for authenticity in “The Royale,” scenic designer Lawrence Moten’s realistic, gritty, gray, brick and steel interior training gym harkens back to an unknown era to younger adult audiences today – 1905-1910 – when African-Americans trained in “Negro-only” sparring gyms and fought only Black boxers.
There’s a rhythm here, too, with taut timing and emotional build-up. Instead of two boxers beating each other on stage, they face forward, to theatergoers, stomping, clapping. Their descriptive words tally their boxing maneuvers, (kudos,fight choreographer Kyle Vincent Terry) and their stream-of-consciousness during a boxing match. Scenes with Thomas Silcott portraying Jay Jackson and Toran White performing as Jackson’s young sparring partner, Fish – whom he nicknames Break-a-Sweat – artistically reproduce boxers’ moves. The ego-driven, personally evasive Jackson takes on younger, eager fighters, toying with them, taunting them during their boxing match, then flooring them with his walloping, victorious blows.
The cast gets theatergoers involved, too, enlisting their responses in some scenes.
Portraying White fight promoter Max, Mark W. Soucy incites the crowd and Jackson, too, while wheedling, cajoling, arranging and negotiating fighting matches, and announcing blow-by-blows.
Negro heavyweight champion Jay Jackson, puffed up on his unerring self-confidence and determination to break color barriers by fighting white, retired world heavyweight champion, Bernard Bixby, wants to win the title, proving himself to the world. He also has a secret, pressing reason he doesn’t reveal until his sister Nina (terrific Ramona Lisa Alexander) visits him.
Nina knows something more powerful, and verbally wallops him with the firestorm of deadly consequences his winning this first-ever, bi-racial match will create. “It isn’t about the fight,” he declares. “I want to make it right.” He has reasons that have haunted him since childhood, he says.
While Nina begs him to lose the fight, Jackson’s longtime sidekick-manager-trainer Wynton (Jeorge Bennett Watson), encourages him to do what’s right for himself.
Does Jackson listen to his conscience or his heart?
My postscript- “The Royale” holds special meaning for me, especially because of its setting in Lowell’s Civic Auditorium footprint. Years ago, I sat ringside, covering a few Golden Gloves matches, when women didn’t do so. It was thrilling, yet frightening, as boxers grunted, sparred, jabbed, attacked and avoided each other, their fancy footwork skirmishing each other. One bloodied boxer sailed through the ropes, onto our writers’ shelf. He stared up at us, dazed, yet determined to get back into the ring for one more shot at the title.
Bless you, Marco Ramirez, for simulating the boxers’ moves, facing us, but not pummeling each other to a pulp…