The Royale: Theater Review

The Royale Production Still - H 2013
Craig Schwartz

The Royale Production Still - H 2013

Tangy boxing genre piece, loosely inspired by first black world heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, packs psychological punch. 

A drama based on the career of the first black world heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, turns the stage at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City into a ring.

Boxing movies have long been a cinematic staple, although for live theater, one usually has to attend the actual bouts themselves. It’s a lot easier to choreograph convincingly and repeatedly reenact, say, fencing, than pugilism. The Royale, in its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, stages this contact without landing any body blows. The impact of jabs, hooks, crosses and uppercuts are conveyed by rhythmic stomping and finger snapping by the players onstage. This emphasizes the primal ritual underlying the sport of combat, and it recognizes in simple gesture that the spectacle and enactment of sport and theater have a great deal in common.

Jay “The Sport” Jackson (David St. Louis) tours the U.S. with his loyal trainer Wynton (Robert Gossett) and manager Max (Keith Szarabajka), showboating with opponents and angling for a match against the retired undefeated white heavyweight champion which will finally certify, for himself and for the country, that a black man can be a triumphant competitor, the best in the world.

As Jackson is transparently a stand-in for Jack Johnson (and his opponent modeled on Jess Willard), he is cocksure and confrontational, although playwright Marco Ramirez skillfully elicits an undercurrent of doubt and fear behind his dominating bravura. St. Louis, previously notable in the Taper’s Parade, the Geffen’s Ruined and the Antaeus Cousin Bette, embodies charismatic confidence in a true star part. For good measure, he is physically believable as a boxer, though perhaps the chiseled body-sculpting adds something of an anachronistic touch.

Similarly, Gossett and Szarabajka lend stalwart support, while Diarra Oni Kilpatrick (lately so memorable in In The Red and Brown Water) as part of Jackson’s shadowy background and Desean Terry as his sparring partner make vivid and original portraits of what would most often be conventional roles.

Part of the durable appeal of these fist sagas are their surefire dramatic underpinnings -- of the sturdy moral tension of giving and receiving brute punishment for sport and profit; and the inescapable significance of prizefighting as a symbol not only of society’s drives and bloodlusts but also as an expression of its prejudices and insecurities. Because of these reliable tropes, The Royale can remain consistently entertaining and involving even as it breaks very little ground new to the genre.

It may traffic in cliches, yet these familiar themes still retain serious significance because the stakes are so substantial, and director Daniel Aukin, “movement and rhythm” captain Ameenah Kaplan, and the splendid cast overcome the lack of freshness with immediacy, grace and no pretense whatsoever to anything but theatrical expression.

Ramirez does greatly raise the ante with a truly inventive coup de theatre at the climax, in which Jackson (and the audience) must confront the demons of his own past and conscience. He does this by posing an ethical question concerning the consequences of assertive advancement that was often raised in the early 20th century within the Negro community and has unquestioned value in remembering.

Nevertheless, with the comfortable distance of a century of hindsight, the argument inexorably resolves into something of a straw man, of historic accuracy and moral weight, yet far too easily overwhelmed by the logic of the fighter’s triumphant accomplishment. Emblematically, the play’s most gasp-inducing inspiration necessarily yields to a relatively hollow conventional resolution.   

Venue: Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City (runs through June 2)

Cast: David St. Louis, Keith Szarabajka, Robert Gossett, Diarra Oni Kilpatrick, Desean Terry

Director: Daniel Aukin

Playwright: Marco Ramirez

Set & costume designer: Andrew Boyce

Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu

Music & sound designer: Ryan Rumery

Movement and rhythm: Ameenah Kaplan