Dallas — You can hear the snap of gloved wrists and the thump of every rhythmic step of the boxers on the hollow, drum-like boxing ring, designed by Clare Floyd Devries and starkly lit by Linda Blasé, in Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, directed with taunt musicality by Christopher Carlos in its regional premiere at Kitchen Dog Theater.
Between rounds we hear Miles Davis’ trumpet, aching with desire and coolly triumphant, by turns, along with syncopated hip-hop sounds, clapping hands and snapping fingers as the fighters deliver the goods. No punch touches flesh, and no blood is shed in the fight scenes, yet fight choreographer Bill Lengfelder and his lean, fit actors make us feel the brutality and raging adrenalin of an actual boxing match. Quite a theatrical feat, in itself.
The play focuses on the aspirations of a young African-American boxer named Jay Jackson (Jamal Gibran Sterling,) a character inspired by Galveston boxer Jack Johnson, who learned to fight in Dallas and went on to became the first black heavyweight champion in 1910, in the midst of the murderous injustices of the Jim Crow era. The charismatic Johnson inspired the play and subsequent film The Great White Hope, and a number of other books, but here we feel the knock-out punch inside-out, as Ramirez imagines the fighter’s inner struggles, as well as his delight in his own physical prowess.
The driving impulse in the play is not only fierce ambition, but the rhythmic moves and powerful punch of a pugilist preparing to beat the near-impossible odds, no matter who or what steps in front of him on the way up. Jay’s manager Wynton (Marcus M. Mauldin) sets up a fight with a tough young boxer named Fish (Lee George) who nearly takes prancing Jay down, and then becomes the rising boxer’s sparring partner. Meanwhile, Jay’s white promoter Max (Adrian Churchill) is setting up the “fight of the decade” with the white champ. “There’s no precedent. Nothing close,” Max tells Jay. And the training begins in earnest.
Tension and suspense increase as Jay prepares and steps into the ring for the big fight. Ramirez keeps the narrative tight, as the back story of all the characters is played out between rounds. When the bell rings, suddenly we’re on the ropes along with Jay as he fights the social and family forces that threaten to weaken his resolve.
Jaquai Wade Pearson is a fretful, moving Nina, Jay’s loving sister, appearing in various incarnations in the play. She pleads with her brother to consider not only his own future should he beat a white man, but that of other black men who will certainly suffer the fury of white backlash should Jay defeat their white champ.
Everybody is strong in this first-rate ensemble performance. Sterling’s Jay is tough but tender. There’s a simple sweetness about him in his loving link to his sister, and his naked ambition is as innocent and demanding as a newborn screaming to be fed. “All I wanna do is fight. I’ll fight anything coming at me,” he shouts. But not every enemy comes straight at Jay. George’s Fish is gloriously fit and much less tense, bringing some playful humor to the ring when Jay is pushing himself hard.
Mauldin is a powerful Wynton, the older black man who’s been around the game a long time and knows well the evils of a racist society. He loves Jay’s strength and pride, but warns him when he gets carried away with his own persona in a match, “You so busy trying to win the crowd, you forgot to win the fight.” Mauldin delivers with quiet eloquence the play’s most gut-wrenching monologue about his own beginnings in the sport that gives the play its title.
Churchill, an actor with great range, is a forceful, determined promoter with the moxie to make it happen and the humanity to understand Jay’s gifts and his love for “the oldest sport in the world.”
You want to be there for the final punch, as the famous boxing match and the play draws to a dramatic climax in a tight 80 minutes. When it’s over and you gather yourself and walk outside, you feel another gut punch with the hard reminder that after more than 100 years, we’re still dealing with divisive racism and hate. Then you remember Muhammad Ali’s spark and Serena Williams’ backhand and all the musicians and poets and actors and civil rights leaders, black and white, that have pushed the door to equality open a bit further.
Still work to be done, for sure. The Royale demands that we stay in the ring.