By: Paulanne Simmons
These days, when sports are so dominated by African-Americans, it’s hard to picture a time when the world heavyweight boxing championship was off limits to a black boxer. The story of prizefighter Jack Johnson (now called Jack Jefferson), who first wrested the title from a white man in 1908, was most famously told in Howard Sackler’s 1967 Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play, The Great White Hope, adapted into a film in 1970.
Clarke Peters, Khris Davis
Decades later, Marco Ramirez has written a new drama about the black boxer. This time the hero is named Jay Jackson (Khris Davis). And the undefeated world champion he beats, is called Bixby. However, Bixby never actually appears onstage. Instead, Jay’s opponent in the big match is metaphorically played by his older sister, Nina (the glorious Montego Glover), who appears unexpectedly near the end of the play to caution her brother on the violence his victory may precipitate.
Khris Davis, Montego Glover
In fact, as directed by Rachel Chavkin, much of this play is reflective, interior and symbolic. Hand clapping, and foot stamping replace actual blows. This turns the thin script into a full-length play and gives the drama a certain lyricism that’s a pleasant surprise during fight scenes. But after a a while, all that rhythmic stamping and clapping seems to have more style than substance, and to be more about the director than the play.
Nevertheless, the The Royale is frequently brought back down to earth by the excellent performances of Clarke Peters as Jay’s resigned and restrained trainer, Wynton; John Lavelle, as his only slightly racist but very practical promoter, Max; and McKinley Belcher III, as the first opponent we see Jay demolish, the green but eager Fish.
The play very effectively exposes the racism rampant in the United States during the early part of the 20th century. It’s very title refers to an inhuman form of entertainment in which black men were blindfolded and sent into a melee of fighters slugging it out until only one was left standing.
But Ramirez makes his point without turning the characters into stereotypes. Jay may be a great hero to his people, but he is also a man who thirsts for white woman and has deserted the community in which he was raised. He has nephews he has apparently not seen in years.
The work of set designer Nick Vaughan and lighting designer Austin R. Smith goes a long way to reproduce the feel of a boxing ring in a stark and minimalist way. But in the end, it The Royale might have been more effective if Chavkin had aimed less for the head and more for the gut.
The Royale, at Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. 150 W. 65th Street, until May 1, 2016. Photos: T. Charles Erickson