Khris Davis, MdKinley Belcher III and Clarke Peters in The Royale
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors
At the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Marco Ramirez's play, The Royale, spotlights a championship boxing match, but don't expect body blows and spurting blood. The violence here is deep-rooted in the fighter's mind and in society. Director Rachel Chavkin's stylized poetic choreography of swinging rhythmic hand claps and pounding foot stomps signify jabs that never make physical contact.
The Royale was inspired by the first African-American heavyweight world champion, Jack Johnson, at the turn of the 1900s. Played with brawn, bulk and vivid verbosity by Khris Davis, Johnson here is called "Jay Jackson," and like Howard Sackler's 1967 play, The Great White Hope, the fighter's struggle is against the outside world. This outside world, however, does not refer to the boxer's interracial love affairs. Jay's target is to move from the "colored" champ arena to the world heavyweight championship and earning the social and material advantages available to white athletes. He decides to complete against the retired white heavyweight champ, Bernard Bixby (based on James J. Jeffries). He even agrees to give Bixby 90 percent of his earnings just to have him come out of retirement and give Jay a shot at the ultimate world title.
While Jay is resolute, others are wary. In a brief but significant segment, Jay's sister, Nina, pleads for him not to fight Bixby. She knows he will win but fears the backlash to follow. It's happened before. Played with grit and passion by Montego Glover (Memphis), Nina relives a horrific past experience with racism as she pleads with her brother.
Nina is not the only person arguing with Jay. His trainer, an old-timer named Wynton (Clarke Peters), stresses the racial consequences as he invokes the play's title with the savage story of The Royale. Referring to battle royals, a group of black boxers were blindfolded and sent into a ring, swinging blindly until only one was left standing. Wynton was one of those fighters and after, he never again climbed into the ring but he trained Jay to become the fierce fighter he is in the Negro fight world.
Still, Jay is determined to fight Bernard Bixby. When "The fight of the Century" takes place in 1910, we never see Bixby. What we perceive is Jay's mind in a battle as fierce as his body, his fists driven by evocations of images of Nina as his adversary, urging him to take a fall, reminding him of her ominous fears. "What happens when you knock that bastard out?"
The cast is a definitive tight fit. In his Lincoln Center Theater debut performance, Khris Davis depicts Jay's trained boxing moves with bravado and personality. A mix of sentiment and braggadocio showcase his drive and self-confidence. John Lavelle plays his audacious promoter, Max, like an circus ringleader. Lavelle also has triple-duty as the referee and reporters. Wynton is more than a trainer to Jay, he is family and a strong influence. McKinley Belcher III, in the role of Fish, an up-and coming young fighter, is hired as a sparring partner. As he grows to admire Jay, Fish's young, affable nature can't help but hint at tragedy.
Nick Vaughan designed a wood-paneled space with stairs and a center that easily transforms into a boxing ring with posts and ropes to put in place. The scene blazes with Austin R. Smith's bursts of light as Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812) directs Matt Hubbs' contact sounds, posts slammed against the wooden floor and shouts of pain. The production runs less than an hour and a half, but the story is told with smart lyricism and the point is concisely made.
While The Royale is outstanding in its imaginative direction, Marco Ramirez' (TV's Orange is the New Black) core stings with the smoldering racism inherent in this society just as it did over 100 years ago.
Lincoln Center Theater
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 West 65 Street, NYC
Previews: Feb. 11, 2016. Opens: Mar. 7, 2016. Closes: May 1, 2016.
Playwright: Marco Ramirez
Director: Rachel Chavkin
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors