This was the tightest play I’ve ever seen: opening night of The Royale at City Theatre. The jabbing dialogue overlays every continuous line. The chorus that pieces the fight, from build to final punch, works within the direction so smoothly; it fixes the adrenaline of a boxing match into the beat of a song.
I’ve never seen a show before that captivates you so much with rhythm and the natural effect of bodies making noise. This play smarts with anticipation because of its artfully directed pace. I owe this experience to “Body Percussion and Movement Choreographer” Stephanie Paul and the interlacing that occurred to carry the plot so fluidly. It is four men creating a tempo that is undeniably compelling. You could hear the audience’s hearts sync-up with the reverberation of a fighter getting psyched.
A boxing tale is an age old frame for an inspired narrative: the underdog using his one god’s gift to create a place for his pride and person in the world. It is an age-old story at this point, but this theatrical experience offers something new. What makes this play unique is the ensemble. The entire force of the play is compelled by the energy of its entire small cast making the music with their stomping, clapping and choral chanting.
Director Stuart Carden creates such a powerful frame to combine timing with stillness. Momentum is arranged with finesse between scenes. Because there is this masculine thump, the beat and clap of hands on hand or chest; the silence in their absence holds as much weight as the feeling of falling. The violence of each fight is abstracted into the music of a fight. In such a paradigm, the quiet moments lend themselves to paintings, boxing into its element of a fight is abstracted to the picturesque click of a moment—lights flash—the beauty of boxing is ballet. It is the picture of two narratives in repose. This concentration of person within the masculine edge of violence compels such a strong dramatic story; which is found in the elements that create the odyssey of the central character: Jay “The Sport” Jackson.
Desean Kevin Terry’s Jay is introduced in a vain that casts him as the villain. He is cocky, spurious and cuttingly witty: “Oh you that kinda pony, pony throwing one trick?”
And yet, he’s the unsung hero. This is Boxing, a sport that brings the strength of poor men together to battle for a dime: culture “red in tooth and claw”. Would it be a fight without cruel jabs? Terry’s ability to play the two sides of Jay’s coin plays heartily into the great themes of the play, surrounding race and the violence of affirming identity. His stage presence as a boxer is a tightly-knit masquerade. In learning his vulnerability, we learn the true fight of the play: Is a black man allowed to be titled the “Heavyweight Champion of the World”?
In the time of this play, some point between 1905 and 1910; this question was apocalyptic.
Segregation wasn’t ‘separate, but equal’, it was defiantly apart. And Jay “The Sport” Jackson puts himself on a path to crash two worlds together. It’s a whole other leg of violence, and the psychological toll turns brutality into stark-raving empathy. Why is a fighting chance for the truth so hotly rejected?
Not that there’s not wit. Buried in the chest is the spur that rejects snide supremacist bullying: “Don’t you think your people have a predilection for fighting?” To which Jay replies, “I’d say your people have predilection for watching.”
When asked why he’s targeting the white-skinned heavyweight champion, he answers “As long as they climb in the ring, they’re comin’ out purple.”
I appreciate the range of emotions this play brings out with such fluid conductivity. There’s so much still to fight for to right a criminal past with a rectified and fair future. Marco Ramirez’ play looks into this relevant dilemma with the same authority of allegory that Arthur Miller’s Crucible did in the 1950’s. Through the lens of a fictionalized true story: Jack Johnson fought and defeated the white champion Jim Jeffries in 1910. Rather than be celebrated in our oh-so-inclusive America he was derided, threatened and eventually jailed. Now I take this directly from the play’s program:
The backlash against Johnson’s victories was swift and severe. By 1913, Johnson was tried on trumped up charges of violating the Mann Act, which covered transporting women across state lines ‘for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.’ Johnson’s supposed crime was bringing his white girlfriend from Pittsburgh to Chicago. Johnson was forced to flee the country and ultimately surrendered to authorities in 1920, serving a year for the crime in Leavenworth prison. Only in 2015, through a bi-partisan effort, was Johnson posthumously pardoned for his conviction, after years of lobbying to clear his name.
As a culture, we need to be eternally reminded of our hypocrisy. History is a demon of origin that needs to be consciously redeemed by recognition and correction. I recommend the power of percussion. This play brings that. The hate and inner turmoil this play infects with vibrato. It’s a drum, the focus of cacophony; a knowledge the audience comes to feel.
I applaud the whole cast in its ability to carry this story viscerally with the utmost execution. It was like seeing a title-match performed by a symphony. You can feel the exercises they must have done to make this play work, sharp and steady with carefully lain body synchronization. It is a fundamentally different way to experience a show because it ripples with whatever catharsis lurks in the feeling of adrenaline.
Special thanks to City Theatre for complimentary press tickets. The Royale runs in City Theatre’s Mainstage through February 12. Tickets and more information can be found here.
Photos courtesy of Kristi Jan Hoover