Heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson becomes a tragic hero at Lincoln Center.
"Boxing has become America's tragic theater," writes Joyce Carol Oates in her essay collection On Boxing. Playwright Marco Ramirez sites the work as one of the main inspirations for his new play The Royale — and director Rachel Chavkin's rendering, now running at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, realizes every bit of tragic theater that the primal sport embodies.
The Royale loosely adapts the life of Jack Johnson — the first-ever African-American heavyweight boxing champion, who earned the title in 1908 after dethroning James J. Jeffries. (Jeffries was pulled out of retirement for the match.) In place of Johnson, we have Jay "The Sport" Jackson, played by Khris Davis with searing physical and emotional intensity. Heart pounding and muscles bulging, he opens the play in a match-up against a skilled young boxer named Fish, played by McKinley Belcher III with the charming energy of an eager novice. Jay bests his opponent but is impressed enough to hire Fish as a sparring partner to help him train for his shot at the heavyweight championship — not to be confused with the colored heavyweight championship, a title Jay has already claimed. The significance of this distinction is both personal and political — and becomes the element that turns what could easily be another run-of-the-mill Rocky story into a compelling piece of theater.
To be fair, The Royale's Rocky-like main character isn't really an underdog at all. We're led to understand that he surely can win. The question, rather, is will the gains of victory outweigh the costs? In the world of Jim Crow, what seems like a step forward for the African-American community may just be the spark that blows everything to bits. Winning all of a sudden becomes a choice — and it's a choice that packs the play with dramatically fraught material for Chavkin to beautifully physicalize on her boxing ring of a stage.
All of the play's action takes place on a square wooden platform (designed by Nick Vaughan), with the push and pull of a physical tussle ruling every one of Jay's encounters: his tense conversations with his white promoter, Max (played by John Lavelle like a slick politician); his mentoring sessions with the sage coach Wynton (Clarke Peters carrying the wisdom of the ages in his performance); and, most effectively, his spat with his sister Nina (played by the commanding Montego Glover), who argues that Jay's triumph would be exponentially more detrimental than it would be beneficial, and would most likely put his family and the rest of black America at risk. Nina becomes the voice inside Jay's head, nagging him to let go of this championship dream — and, for the sake of spoiler-free vagueness, this internal struggle manifests itself in the boxing ring in a brilliantly theatrical way.
Chavkin's athletic choreography is one of the main reasons to see The Royale. Scene after scene of Ramirez's thick dialogue can sit heavily on the brain. But when it's roused by Chavkin's clear aesthetic point of view, the narrative comes to life. She mercifully spares us from 90 minutes of faux boxing while harnessing all the power of a real match in a way that's unique to the stage. Echoing booms (courtesy of Matt Hubbs' sound design) signal powerful blows, rhythmic claps punctuate dialogue, and Austin R. Smith's shadowy lighting designs draw out the "tragic" drama that compelled Joyce Carol Oates to write about the sport in the first place.
Just as Ramirez builds his own version of the great Jack Johnson's professional history, Chavkin interprets the power struggle (both mental and physical) that occurs when two boxers enter the ring. Each takes liberties with reality, but both artists' renderings couldn't be more truthful.