Marco Ramirez’s play The Royale is a knock out hit. From the moment it starts you cannot turn your eyes away. Loosely based on the life of boxer Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight champion, this is a story we do not know and should. Receiving its NYC premiere at Lincoln Center, with the stylized staging by Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) this has a one two punch that will hot you in your gut.
When we first meet Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Khris Davis), he is in a match with scrappy young Fish (McKinley Belcher III). His veteran trainer Wynton (The Wire’s Clarke Peters) is couching him and his white manager Max (John Lavelle), is calling the fight. Max is “the world’s only interracial fight promoter.” Jackson is desperate for a title shot against the white heavyweight champion, who finally agrees, to the humiliating terms of 90 percent of the gate, win or lose. Jackson takes the deal knowing he can win and what it means for the black race. When his sister Nina (Memphis‘ Montego Glover), arrives, the consequences, of what his winning means takes on a whole new level. Already men have been killed, hurt and his own family threatened and he has not even won the title away from a white man.
Ms. Glover, Mr. Peters and Mr. Davis all have monologues that I am sure will be in auditions shortly, if not already. They are tight, soul searching and thought provoking. Mr. Davis’ performance is intense, arrogant and moving. Peters adds a world weary angst, Lavelle the desperateness of a manager who has much to prove and Belcher III a newness that wants to please. Ms Glover is moving and makes us think about the problem at hand.
Ms. Chavkin’s direction is theatrical and I love the incorporation of rhythmic hand-clapping for both the rounds in the ring and in life. Nick Vaughan’s set design and Austin R Smith’s lighting let us see the shadows and the people we box with.
Mr. Ramirez’s play is thought provoking and moving. He has written for TV shows (Sons of Anarchy, Fear the Walking Dead and Orange Is the New Black), so my guess is the critics will judge this harshly, but they are wrong. You can write for TV and Theatre.
The Royale: Mitzi E. Newhouse, Lincoln Center until May 1st .