Friday, March 11, 2016

The Royale

A few seats were empty in the Mitzi Newhouse Theater the evening I saw Marco Ramirez's The Royale, and that struck me as kind of a bummer, because man, oh man, The Royale is a play worth seeing--especially in a production as tightly realized and inventively directed (by Rachel Chavkin), and as beautifully performed (by an iron-strong five-member ensemble) as this one is.

I suppose the idea of a one-set play about an early-20th century African American boxer is not exactly going to make a lot of the typical patrons of Lincoln Center froth at the mouth in a rabid rush to the box office. I get it: I'm about as big a fan of boxing as I am of rolling around naked in ground glass. But The Royale grabbed me almost as soon as it began, and I am most grateful that it did.

T. Charles Erickson
 Inspired by, if not closely based on, the life of the heavyweight fighter Jack Johnson (1878-1946), The Royale focuses on Jay Johnson (Khris Davis), a brilliantly talented and ambitious black heavyweight boxer who wants to break the color barrier by fighting--and beating--Bixby, the undefeated and now-retired heavyweight world champion. When Bixby accepts the challenge, Jay starts training with the help of his coach, Wynton (Clarke Peters), his sparring partner, Fish (McKinley Belcher III), and his white promoter, Max (John Lavelle).

But as the big fight nears, the physical training Jay puts himself through turns out to be the easy part of his preparations. Far harder is grappling with the fact that earning the title is no simple path to glory, but a double-edged sword that threatens to drive race relations backward even as they are also driven forward. And after a visit from his beloved sister, Nina (Montego Glover), who reminds him why he wants the title in the first place, but also of the fallout that might result from his win, the mind games only get worse. Will Jay manage to block out the doubts, the threats, the endless racism, while he's in the ring? Or will he lose (or throw) the fight for fear that his win will result in white anger and countless acts of brutal racial violence?

Weighty, looming questions like these do not, of course, result in easy answers, and The Royale doesn't tie up the loose ends in a tidy bow. That is, of course, to its credit: things have certainly gotten better in America since the turn of the century, but the present remains a veritable forest of double-edged swords when it comes to black lives, nonetheless. The Royale is so consistently engrossing, Jay's inner game so engagingly depicted, and the cast and direction so flawless and fine, that the ending is not the point so much as the getting there is.

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