Theatrical Outfit is in the final week of a riveting production of Marco Ramirez’ play “The Royale,” largely based on incidents in the life of the first African-American boxing heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson (1878-1946).
Patdro Harris directs a carefully chosen cast of five people in a stylized 90-minute production that has no wasted words, movement, or time. It’s a “simple falling into place that takes one’s breath away,” as was said of the original Broadway cast of “A Chorus Line,” a show which oddly bears some similarities to “The Royale,” but without the historical gravitas of the Outfit’s play.
Consider what it meant to try to become the first black heavyweight champ in 1910, when Jim Crow was in full effect You’ve probably heard of or seen “The Great White Hope,” a 1967 Pulitzer-winning play and 1970 movie, based on Jack Johnson.
“The Royale” makes everything a bit simpler and more personal: The lead character here is called Jay Jackson and is played by a magnetic Garrett Turner. The brilliant conceit of this play is to take us into the mind and heart of Jay, so that while boxing occurs onstage, carefully choreographed, no real punches are thrown; and we are privy to Jay’s inner thoughts and yearnings in a startling, unexpected way.
But he doesn’t do it alone. There’s his first opponent and sparring partner Fish (Marlon Andrew Burnley); Wynton, his trainer (Rob Cleveland); his white manager and promoter Max (Brian Kurlander); and his sister Nina (Cynthia D. Barker). These four actors do not utter one false word or waste one gesture: They are superb.
On an ingenious set (R. Paul Thomason) with a raised “ring” in the middle of it, action, flowing and organic, occurs in three distinct areas. One of these areas is a locker room, where Jay’s sister Nina pays him an unexpected visit and begins to enlighten us all as to the intense inner conflicts that the apparently confident, easy-talking Jay masks so well.
To her he reveals “I’m gonna take care of this…I’m gonna make it right…I’m gonna change things.” What things? Every ounce of his being has led him to this moment, when he’s ready to make history.
You see, in 1910, the real Jack Johnson faced a former, white undefeated champ who came out of retirement to challenge Johnson. It was billed as the “fight of the century.” There was much racial tension surrounding the fight.
There’s nothing like a sibling to bring us down to earth. Nina wants Jay to call it off. She asks if he’s considered the violence that will ensue, nationally, if he wins (and there were riots in various American cities after the real fight). He tells her he has; she’s wrong to worry; he’s got this thing covered. Nina will have none of it.
You can’t help rooting for Jay. He’s already under enormous pressure, and she calls him selfish to pursue his dream. I understand her legitimate concerns, but she’s certainly a wet blanket to her brother when he could use some familial support.
Much of the credit for our rooting for Jay must be given to the actor who plays him: Garrett Turner. He not only turns in a polished, accomplished performance, he’s handsome and charismatic as well. He makes you see how the real Jack Johnson could become a legend, and he has.
“The Royale” is not a play that explodes in fisticuffs, but instead it shows us a dagger of the mind, as Macbeth said, in a valiant young man trying to surmount impossible odds. It’s unique and daring, quite unlike any play I’ve ever seen.
For tickets and information, visit theatricaloutfit.org.