“This is the time for this fight,” says Max, boxing match promoter, to Jay “The Sport” Jackson, a fictionalized Jack Johnson. And this is the time to put on this play, for the issues explored in The Royale, set in the early 20th century, are as urgent as ever. The Royale is a story of black pride and white prejudice.
American playwright Marco Ramirez, who has written for TV series Orange is the New Black and Sons of Anarchy, based his play, premiered at Lincoln Center Theater two years ago, on the story of Jack Johnson. In 1908, Johnson was the first African American to earn the heavyweight boxing title. He beat a Canadian named Tommy Burns. Caucasian Americans were outraged and the search went out for a “great white hope,” to recover the heavyweight title. In 1910 James Jackson Jeffries came out of retirement to fight Johnson before a crowd of 25,000.
Ramirez’ play is about much more than a fight. Under the excellent direction of Guillermo Verdecchia, The Royale takes on multiple meanings and is nimbly choreographed to run us through six rounds that recount the lives and the struggles of the different characters, including Jay’s sister Nina. All of it takes place in a boxing ring. (Soulpepper is selling tickets to patrons who wish to sit ringside.)
Dion Johnstone is a heavyweight in size and acting ability. He plays Jay. Christef Desir, equally fit, plays Fish, Jay’s sparring partner. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design has them move to the clap-clap-clap or stomp-stomp-stomp rhythms of hands and feet, urged on like flamenco dancers. They don’t actually box each other.
We see them, punching and gripping each other, but separated, facing the audience, it’s as if they’re shadow-boxing. One is thrown against the ropes; the other places a deadly punch and we hear their inner thoughts, as in Fish’s utterance, “watch out for that hook.”
Verdecchia deftly manoeuvres the characters and the narrative, signalling round’s end with a blackout. Michelle Ramsey’s lighting design includes a double row of klieg lights that flash at us, as if to alert us to something alarming.
And Nina and her story are certainly that. Sabryn Rock as Nina wears a stern look to go with her prim outfit of high-necked blouse and long skirt, her straightened hair wrapped up on her head. Nina enters the ring to surprise Jay, who hasn’t seen her for a while. She brings with her memories of the past, both his and hers. Rock’s performance is open to several interpretations; there’s a possibility that Jay was her protector and laid out Nina’s husband.
Diego Matamoros as Max the fight promoter is often our story guide. He operates as a referee, as Jay’s manager; he’s also a carny, gathering an audience for the big fight. Max wants Jay to fight a retired heavyweight champ named Bixby. But Max opposes the deal Bixby offers: he wants 90 percent of the box office. Jay has no problem with that. Wynton, Jay’s coach (powerful performer Alexander Thomas) lets us know that Jay might have confronted Bixby for free.
Wynton also gives us the reason for the play’s title. The Royale was a bar where a brutal fight took place; Wynton was part of it.
True to the dreamy flow of The Royale, Bixby is boxed but not seen. He’s a ghost. The outcome of the fight is unclear. All this occurs in a very short 90 minutes.
The Royale gives us theatre as it should be: poetry in motion, demanding all that our imaginations can embrace.
By Marco Ramirez
Directed by Guillermo Verdecchia
Soulpepper production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto until November 11
Photo of Diego Matamoros as Max and Dion Johnstone as Jay by Cylla von Tiedemann