Through Sun 5/27
Some explaining Marco Ramirez’s The Royale at the Cleveland Play House may refer to it as a “boxing” play. The script does contain the act of fisticuffs, but it is in fact a play about the psyche of a black man who finds himself in three life battles. He has a strong desire to be the world’s heavyweight boxing champion. He is also trying to make a stand against prejudice. And his third battle is a historical struggle with his sister and her desire to protect him.
The play, set in 1905 in the midst of Jim Crow, takes its fisticuffs tale from the true story of Jack Johnson [Jay Jackson in the play], an athlete who dominated the black world of boxing as the Colored Heavyweight Champion, but was continually denied the chance to fight for the World [White] Heavyweight Championship.
Only when Jackson accepted a bout that would pay him 10% of the gate, in contrast to his opponent’s 90%, did he get his chance. And even after he won, he found himself receiving death threats and being denied recognition by the majority white society.
Johnson [Jackson] was rebuked with some of the same reasons as the great track and field star Jesse Owens. The arguments were based on the sociological attitude that “the negro excels in the events he does because he is closer to primitive than the white man.” Thus, a black man was more an animal than the white.
With that attitude, the denial of admittance to “white” hotels and restaurants, separate drinking fountains and rest rooms was justified, as was the lack of equal payment for services and the recognition of the talent and abilities of blacks.
Ironically, though, almost all of the play takes place in a boxing ring, and fights are presented, not a single physical punch is struck. The damage is done with words, words that showcase all three of Jay “The Sport” Jackson’s battles.
Jackson had gone through much of his life denying his family and his upbringing. His sister Nina will not allow him to run and hide, and turns out to be his greatest adversary and motivator. Even after his boxing victory, it is she whom he must confront in the ring, and it is she who he cannot defeat.
The 85-minute play without an intermission is filled with abstractions and illusions that might not be grasped by the viewer. The production itself, filled with foot stomps, handclaps and fist bumps, is outstanding, exceeding the material. The cast, the effective directing by CPH’s associate artistic director Robert Barry Fleming and the technical aspects are all of high quality.
Preston Butler III is convincing as Jay. His athleticism and role interpretation are well-honed. Nikkole Salter has the right tone for Nina, Jay’s pragmatic sister. Her “sparring” with her brother during their “fight” scene is well-conceived. Brian D. Coats (Wynton), Leo Marks (Max) and Johnny Ramey (Fish) were all character correct.
Jason Ardizonne-West’s set design, Alan C. Edwards’ lighting, Jane Shaw’s sound design and Toni-Leslie James’ costume designs all enhanced Fleming’s script interpretation. Though it was sometimes frustrating not to hear all the words due to the theatre-in-the-round staging, being up and close and sitting in an authentic boxing venue added so much that missing words here and there didn’t take away from the overall effect.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: To fully appreciate The Royale, audience members must broaden their view beyond the boxing ring, the story of the fight for the championship and societal prejudice, and delve into the psychological motivations of the great black champion himself. The Royale is a thought-provoking conflict which many will appreciate, while others will find themselves defeated by some of the script’s abstraction.
The Royale runs through Sun 5/27 at the Outcalt Theatre in the Allen Complex in PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com.
[Written by Roy Berko, Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]