'The Royale': Theater Review

THE ROYALE - Lincoln Center Theater - H 2016
Courtesy of Charles Erickson
This thinly written and overly stylized drama doesn't go the distance.

Marco Ramirez's play presented by Lincoln Center Theater is loosely based on the life of boxer Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight champion.

There's an excellent drama based on the life of famed boxer Jack Johnson, who became the first African-American heavyweight world champion in the early years of the 20th century.

It's called The Great White Hope.

Like that 1967 play, Marco Ramirez's new drama, receiving its NYC premiere at Lincoln Center, is based on the real-life Johnson, if more loosely. But it doesn’t pack nearly the same punch. Featuring elaborately stylized staging that fails to compensate for the thin writing (the playwright has written for such TV shows as Sons of Anarchy, Fear the Walking Dead and Orange Is the New Black), The Royale doesn't fulfill the promise of its powerful subject.

Here the main character is dubbed Jay "The Sport" Jackson (Khris Davis, impressively filling his role's physical demands), a black boxer fighting for peanuts under the watchful eyes of his veteran trainer Wynton (The Wire's Clarke Peters) and his white manager Max (John Lavelle), the latter boastfully describing himself as "the world's only interracial fight promoter."

Jay is reduced to fighting opponents far beneath him, including the scrappy young Fish (McKinley Belcher III), who becomes his sparring partner. He's desperate for a title shot against the white heavyweight champion, who finally agrees, albeit with onerous, humiliating terms: 90 percent of the gate, win or lose.

Despite the advice of his handlers, the cocksure Jay takes the deal. But his enthusiasm becomes short-lived with the arrival of his older sister Nina (Memphis' Montego Glover), who's afraid of the dire consequences, both for her race and her own family, should Jay win the title.

"Look at the dogs you're about to unleash," she cautions. "And when it happens, don't say I didn't warn you."

Despite its provocative subject matter, the evening only sporadically comes to dramatic life, its most compelling scene being a monologue by Wynton in which he describes a horrific fighting episode from his boyhood. To make up for the skimpiness of the material, the dialogue is frequently accompanied by rhythmic hand-clapping, a repetitive device that quickly becomes annoying. Similarly, the use of one of the characters to assume the place of Jay's white opponent feels forced and unconvincing.

Director Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) clearly relishes the play's ritualistic elements. Moments such as when the performers assemble a boxing ring in front of our eyes (courtesy of set designer Nick Vaughan) boast an undeniable theatricality. And the acting is visceral enough to hold our attention, from Davis' intense turn as the arrogant Jackson to Peters' moving, world-weary trainer to Glover's anguished sibling. Lavelle and Belcher are equally fine, if given less to do. But the actors' strong efforts, and all the foot stomping in the world, aren't enough to make the play feel anything other than pedestrian.  

Venue: Mitzi E. Newhouse, New York
Cast: McKinley Belcher III, Khris Davis, Montego Glover, John Lavelle, Clarke Peters
Playwright: Marco Ramirez
Director: Rachel Chavkin
Set designer: Nick Vaughan
Costume designer: Dede M. Ayite
Lighting designer: Austin R. Smith
Sound designer: Matt Hubbs
Presented by the Lincoln Center Theater