“The Royale” written by Marco Ramirez and directed and choreographed by Paige Hernandez is presently playing at Olney Theatre at the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab. This is co-production with 1st Stage in Tyson’s Corner where the play will move in December.
The main character, Jay Jackson (Jaysen Wright) is loosely based on the great fighter and first black world heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. Johnson’s life has been told before in the play and movie, “The Great White Hope’ and the documentary “Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.” This version makes no attempts to copy either. This is a stylistic vision of the rise of the first African-American to break that barrier.
The first half spotlights Jackson’s rise. In very stylized choreography on a set that is a miniaturized boxing ring, we see Jay fight as Black Heavyweight Champion against a young contender. Fish (Clayton Pelham, Jr.). After the fight Fish stays on as a sparring partner for Jackson. However, Jay wants to fight for the World Heavyweight Championship against Bixby, a white man who now holds the title. (We never see Bixby.) Jay’s manager, Wynton (played now by Jay Frisby) encourages Jay. His promoter, Max (Chris Genebach) is more realistic about the chances of getting a fight. Of course, he succeeds in getting the match.
The second half of the play deals with the aftermath of the bout. After Johnson’s win, there was a race riot, and people were killed and maimed, mostly black men. Johnson himself would be vilified and eventually arrested for violation of the Mann Act and sent to jail. As with other famous blacks who were firsts like Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Jesse Owens and Althea Gibson our protagonist’s own life is threatened. Jay is confronted with the difficulties already appearing in black communities by his sister, Nina (Lolita Marie). She tells him about threats against her own family back in their home town and violence to black men that have already appeared around the country. She is worried about the fight. When the fight happens, it is actually Nina who assumes the role of Jay’s opponent using dramatic choreography.
‘The Royale’ asks some hard questions about the history of race relations in this country. It does this in a unique way through fine direction and acting.
Wright as Jay is an impressive actor. He physically looks the role, and he is able to catch the subtle changes as Jay goes from the braggadocio brawler to the younger brother concerned about his sibling and her family. We see the doubts the future champion has about his motives and reasons for participating in the fight.
Genebach not only plays Max the promoter, most ably, but in one scene he goes from Max to the press asking Jay a torrent of questions. He carries that off beautifully.
Pelham, Jr. plays the sympathetic friend and sparring partner of Jay, Fish. There is a scene when he realizes he is being hired to spar with Jay which shows Pelham, Jr.’s range as an actor. At first, he is embarrassed and hurt and then when he realizes his fortune has changed, joyous.
Jay Frisby has recently stepped into the role of Wynton. His retelling of his own fighting history in “The Royale” which were matches where black men fought each other, sometimes with blindfolds, for coins thrown by the crowd. It is a quite touching and revealing scene.
Paige Hernandez’s direction and choreography make this a visually stunning play. The ring may be small, but she uses every space to create memorable images and bring home the point of the play, that every step forward is one backward when it comes to race in this country. I know there was an emergency acting replacement before the play finally opened almost a week late, but you would never have realized it if you didn’t know. Cliff Williams III did a remarkable job with fight choreography.
Debra Kim Sivigny did the set and costume design. The set, though small, is unusual. The ring is surrounded by the audience to give the feeling of watching a prize fight in person. Suspended behind the ring are smudged windows that are really screens for projections of silhouettes of the crowd, Nina and Jay. The costumes are nicely in period.
Sarah Tundermann’s lighting design does well to set moods. She also lights the actors in the audience without blinding the viewers.
Kenny Neal’s sound design is realistic, especially in the fight scenes. It does a great deal to make us feel we are right there watching.
“The Royale” asks some hard questions about the history of race relations in this country. It does this in a unique way through fine direction and acting.
Running Time: One hour and 20 minutes. No Intermission.
Advisory: Due to strong language this play is not recommended for young children.
“The Royale” plays at the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, Olney, Maryland 20832 until October 27, 2019. Tickets are available online.
For information about “The Royale” and other shows on the schedule go to Olney Theatre Center website.