Oh how far we’ve come, and how far is left to go…
The Royale is a slick, inventive piece of one-act theater with a historical theme that seems to be all too relevant to today’s current events. The play is about the life of the boxing star Jack “Jay” Johnson, whose character is played Khris Davis. The time is 1905, and the play opens on a boxing match between the up and coming African American star Jay “The Sport” Jackson and an amateur named Fish (McKinley Belcher III). Right away in this first scene the audience is made to understood that this won’t be your typical play about a sports star.
The boxing match doesn’t involve a single punch. Instead, the two sportsmen battle it out with words and body language. They dance around the ring, verbally taunting each other and going through all the motions of fighting. Sound plays a vital role in the play throughout and loud stomps of the feet on the wooden set, coupled with an adequate reaction from the other actor, indicate that a punch has been thrown. At other points in the play, sounds are used to indicate changes in the set, as pieces move in and out. Once, sound is even used to indicate the pace of Jay’s thoughts as he practices with a punching bag.
The plot of the play is fairly straightforward. Jay wants to become the Heavyweight Champion of the world. This is a title that has only ever been held by a white boxer. The ‘negro’ boxers fight in a different league and there is a Negro Heavyweight Champion for them. But this title is not enough for Jay, a man so good at the sport that they call him the sport. Jay is relentlessly ambitious though, and in the midst of Jim Crow he manages to force the white Heavyweight Champion out of retirement to fight him. Hiding under this façade of simplicity is a much deeper message that only begins to become clear after Jay’s sister Nina, played Tony award nominated actress Montego Glover, arrives. Nina’s presence proves to be what it takes to move the stakes and suspense up to that next level that they need to be at.
Ultimately, The Royale proves to be about how small actions by one person can have rippling effects for all people of the same skin color. This is a message and theme that seems to be all too relevant over one hundred years after when the events of the play take place. The Royale opens on March 7 at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (150 W 65th St). Tickets are available online for $87. The play is written by Marco Ramirez, directed by Rachel Chavkin, and produced by Lincoln Center Theater.