Theatre Review: The Royale at the Kitchen Theatre Company

The Royale, directed by Pirone Yousefzadeh, Kitchen Theatre Company, Ithaca, NY 3/22/19

There is something to be said of period pieces; even in a time completely different from their own, they can still feel relevant. How relevant, though, is to be determined by the work of a director—whose job is essentially to create a believable world onstage which resonates with an audience.
In Marco Ramirez’ The Royale, a play set in a radically racist, early twentieth century America, African American boxer Jay “the Sport” Jackson (based on the real-life Jack Johnson) spurs a monumental change in professional league sports. And as a result, the nation’s sociopolitical climate shifted. As Jackson prepares for the biggest fight of his career—one which might make him the champion of a historically white sport—we see the ever lingering struggles that African Americans faced in a racially segregated world.
While Ramirez’ play focuses on a Jack Johnson-like character, it isn’t biographical. The Royale leaves many of the boxer’s life events out of its narrative and quite frankly, it’s a shame. (Johnson’s life itself was packed full of dramatic, gasp-worthy moments which would make for a great play, I’m sure.)
What is not mentioned in Ramirez’ play is America’s search for a “Great White Hope.” In its xenophobic state (which we’re arguably still in today) the nation hunted for a promising white man who could beat Johnson. But when Jim Jeffries (the reigning champion) came out of retirement to fight Johnson in 1910, he lost. Johnson then became the first African American World Heavy Weight Champion, a win which provoked racial unrest. The noxious colors of this America are artistically reimagined and brought to light in Ramirez’ play as he explores the cost of making—and changing—history.
The real Jack Johnson was infamously known for a bit more than his skills in the ring; his lavish lifestyle and womanizing tendencies, as well as his particular taste for white women, left a bad taste in the mouth of many. This is a persona well adapted by Jamal James, who’s playing Jackson (under Pirone Yousefzadeh’s flawless direction) onstage in the Kitchen Theatre Company’s intimate black box theatre. The simple and open set (by scenic and lighting designer Seth Reiser)—with a bare, wooden floor, a hanging boxing bag, and the occasional bench—leaves room for James’ strong presence. But while James’ charismatic Jackson is archetypal to a successful athlete or celebrity, he’s still human. He effortlessly and tactfully drives this play in his portrayal of a man with passion and a dream—and an unending amount of fight.
Alongside Jackson are his manager, Wynton (Alexander Thomas), and agent, Max (Sean Meehan), who have been with him for almost a decade. These fiercely loyal men support Jackson as they bring him to the height of his career. Jackson’s new sparring partner and friend, Fish (well played by Dazmann Still in his professional debut), is reminiscent of a younger version of the boxer. He brings out a difference side of Jackson, one which no one else has yet to meet.
Without their relationship (especially in an intimate moment when the two sing and dance together in the locker room) James’s Jackson might have seemed cold and numb. Deep down he is angry at the world and it shows in his attempt to forcefully push away those who care about him most.
Though he puts up this wall, there is more to this macho fighter than he leads on. In contrast to his typical swagger, James’ vulnerability presents itself in moments with Fish and later with his sister, Nina (Lisa Tharps). And while he hungers for the recognition that he deserves, his selfishness—or more so naivety—clouds his judgment. When talk of violence makes its way to Jackson on the night of the biggest fight of his career, a deus-ex-machina-like intervention from Nina reminds him—and us—that this isn’t just about him winning a boxing match.
Making quite the entrance, Tharps appears in Jackson’s locker room in an elegant, black and maroon A-line dress (designed by Sarafina Bush). Tall with intent, her presence fills the space. Nina is a strong, seemingly modern woman; she commands respect with her confident, independent air as if she’s a twenty-first century woman. Jackson and Nina are not unalike in this sense. Nina, however, sees a fatal truth that her brother can’t recognize.
Jackson is an inherently self-centered guy, and though he clearly loves his sister and wants to make things right, he loves his game more. Nothing in this world will stop him after having come so far. Outside of the ring, there’s a world of tension waiting to be released upon a black man’s victory over a white man’s—or rather a black man taking what white men believe to be theirs because it has always been so.
Ramirez plays with the idea of what it means to fight, win, and lose, both personally and as a society. This fight is bigger than Jackson and his hunger for a title: whether he wins or loses, heartbreak and loss will ensue. But Jackson doesn’t see it that way. He doesn’t care about the color of his opponent’s skin—this isn’t an issue of race for him. In his mind, he isn’t breaking down a glass ceiling; he’s proving he’s the best of the best.
One might presume that a play about boxing would include, well, boxing. But one of the most striking elements in the production is the lack of actual fighting. With expressive movement (smartly coordinated by Rocio Mendez), Jay and each of his opponents fight in a choreographed shadow boxing manner. They don’t come in contact and rarely, if ever, do they face each other.
With claps from those on stage (written in by Ramirez) mimicking the rhythm and sound of punches, what is meant to be a fight becomes a beautiful dream-like dance sequence. This perhaps signals the individualistic nature of boxing. Though Jackson has a team of people rooting him, when he’s fighting in the ring, he’s alone. And a spotlight on Jay in his final moments in the ring define this.
With the exception of Fish and Jackson singing along to a music box and the pulsating underscore for Jackson’s fights, music does not have much of a place in Yousefzadeh’s production. Scene changes are accompanied by jarringly intense modern music (by Chris Lane). For a moment, it pulls us out from Jackson’s world and back into our own, reminding us that things aren’t much different here today—racism still exists.
The disparity and racial aggressions present—heightened by Yousefzadeh’s intensely emotional direction—frighteningly parallel those of our own time. If ever there was a time to produce and bring The Royale to life, it would be now: a time wherein action and positive change are needed in the wake of our nasty political climate.