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The Royale

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Khris Davis
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

You're struck by the energy the moment you step into the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. Yes, the set is impressive: a bare-wood boxing ring both inviting and dangerous, with the homey look of classical building techniques and the splinter-imparting, blood-drawing threat of a stark absence of safety regulations. But the walls, too, tell a tale, plastered as they are silhouettes of fighters and screaming promises of an unheard-of purse ($101,000) to be awarded to the victor. Even before a word is spoken in Marco Ramirez's play The Royale, it's clear that stakes within this particular realm have never been higher. And once the words and the fists start flying, things only get worse—and a whole lot better.

Scenic designer Nick Vaughan and lighting designer Austin R. Smith, who illuminates the stage with an imposing, cavelike persistence, are responsible for the choice visuals that propel you through this lean-and-hungry, blood-pumping 80-minute evening. (The fine costumes, just as atmospheric, are by Dede M. Ayite.) But Ramirez and his director, Rachel Chavkin, extend all that same electricity to the script and its presentation as they spin the story of Jay Jackson (who's played, with magnetic gusto, by Khris Davis). This black boxer in 1905 (who is based, none too subtly, on the real-life Jack Johnson) is on the cusp of greatness, and no one lets you forget it. The staccato, almost pointillist script uses sharp jabs of individual words and dialogue that are punctuated by constant claps and pounds from the five-person cast to mimic, with eerie effectiveness, how each physical and verbal blow lands—with breath-robbing force.

It's a vividly theatrical solution that lets them cover more ground (and, in my book, more thrillingly) than, say, the climactic bout from Broadway's Rocky two years ago. It also wrenches you back into a period when all of this was of questionable legality (if not morality), an implication that proves crucial Jay rises to the top of his chosen profession. Backed by his coach Wynton (Clarke Peters), his sparring partner Fish (McKinley Belcher III), and, to a lesser degree, the fight promoter Max (John Lavelle), he becomes the Negro Heavyweight Champion of the World. But that isn't enough: He wants to prove even more, by tackling the actual Heavyweight Champion, the white Bernard Bixby, who's retired but willing to put on the show of retaining his title—if the price is right.

Much of the action is consumed with Jay preparing, mentally and bodily, for the Big Fight, but Ramirez is far more interested in the personal and social psychology behind his yearn to win. Jay is both driven and held back by his lovely sister, Nina (Montego Glover), who sees Jay's ambition as yet another trap that's preventing him from living an honest, clean life. Not only must Jay fight her (metaphorically speaking), but he must also take on the white power structure—a group that, unfortunately, coincides with wrestling ticket buyers—and risk setting off a race war if he pummels Bixby the way he's sure he can. And, either way, Bixby only agrees if Jay turns over 90 percent of the receipts. For Jay, what is really losing and what is really winning?

Khris Davis joined by McKinley Belcher III,
John Lavelle, and Clarke Peters
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

What indeed. Thanks to Chavkin's startling staging, which moves like lightning and makes full, inventive use of the pylons and ropes that are so essential to Vaughan's set, Ramirez powers through every angle on this question with a blistering intensity that clamps you to Jay's side through every business meeting and personal conversation, and compels you to dodge (or, gulp, receive) uppercuts right alongside him. The fusion between writing and direction is so airtight that it borders on Expressionism (appropriate for the setting), yet there's no hint of Ramirez being intentionally derivative. The characters are simply speaking and acting out in their own language, and every word, hit, clap, and stomp echoes with that authenticity.

Much of this is thanks to the actors, who are roundly excellent. Fierce and fiery as Jay, Davis projects a captivating blend of rage-filled (and race-fueled) machismo that centers the play; but he's no less adept at revealing the soft heart, and even sentimental streak, beneath the bravado that suggests a man who has misgivings about his path. Davis is totally convincing from start to finish, so Jay truly seems like a complete man rather than a political avatar or archetypal excavation. But Peters's realism-minded Wynton, Belcher's lusciously anxious Fish, Lavelle's greasy-greedy Max, and Glover's level-headed Nina are every bit as terrific.

So, for that matter, is all of The Royale, with one possible exception. The Big Fight itself depends on a trick of writing and staging that, though correct given what sets it up, is more heavy-handed and half-hearted than the rest of the play. Because the conflict is so critical and its content so absorbing, the moment still works, but it's the only time that you get the impression Ramirez is relying on others' tried-and-tested tropes rather than his own unique innovations.

But it's a testament to how good everything else is that even that doesn't matter very much. What does is that you're experiencing a titanic event from the inside out, and seeing first-hand the development (and incitement) of race relations at a major flash point in American history, and that sends Ramirez's work to a different stratum as both commentary and theatre. Real boxing matches may have more blood, but I've never seen one as exciting or as moving as The Royale.

The Royale
Through May 1
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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