THEATER REVIEW: “The Royale” @ Capital Repertory Theatre [Berkshire on Stage]
How do you depict a prize fight onstage without the boxers landing a single blow? In The Royale, playwright Marco Ramirez takes on this challenge, reaching for every theatrical tool in his arsenal to bring to life this electrifying production inspired by the struggles of iconic black heavyweight Jack Johnson. In Capital Repertory Theatre’s current offering, Ramirez, abetted by director Megan Sandberg-Zakian, fight choreographer Kyle Vincent Terry and an exceptional cast, combines poetic dialogue, music, singing, rhythmic movements, sounds, evocative lighting, authentic period costumes and choreographed fight scenes in which the performers face forward and do not touch one another. With only a five-character ensemble, Ramirez brings both the world of boxing and the horrendous stain of American racism in the first decade of the twentieth century to a heart-stopping crescendo.
Jack Johnson, who was the first African-American World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, stirred up so much controversy that he was jailed in 1913 on a racially motivated charge. Helped by Ken Burns’ 2004 television documentary: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson and by others including Sylvester Stallone, who brought this case to the attention of Donald Trump, the President issued a posthumous pardon to Johnson earlier this year.
Ramirez does not pretend to adhere to all the facts of Johnson’s life, changing the names of the characters and selecting details that suit his aim. Chronicling Johnson’s goal to win the world heavyweight title, which had always been held by a white boxer, alter ego Jay Jackson (Thomas Silcott), proclaims at a press conference: It “ain’t about bein’ no Heavyweight Champion of the White World. It’s about bein’ Champion, period.” White champions had long refused to defend their crowns against black fighters — until Johnson broke the barrier in 1910. Ramirez explores white America’s violent reaction to a black man rising to the pinnacle of boxing success, and the toll it would take on ordinary African-Americans.