Marco Ramirez's text does its own riffing, though, appropriating elements of the story of Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion. Now, the Johnson story has been done before, in Howard Sackler's The Great White Hope, and that version made James Earl Jones a star. But Mr. Ramirez's play isn't looking for any great white hope. Rather, it uses powerful and poetic language and visual symbolism to show a black boxer's struggle to find his power by overcoming a myriad of expectations from the audiences he helped to create.
Jay "the Sport" Jackson (Robert Christopher Riley) is at the top of his chosen profession, but he's also something of a clown. He knows that he doesn't have to work hard to beat the opponents, such as Fish (Okieriete Onaodowan), that his manager Max (John Lavelle) rustles up for him. Wynton (Ray Anthony Thomas), his trainer, stoically tries to keep Jay's head in his fights, seemingly ignoring Jay's penchant for preening and chatting up his audience.
One thing that Jay wants more than anything, though, is a shot at a world heavyweight championship fight. So, when Max brings him a terrible financial deal that nevertheless gets him the chance at the championship, Jay jumps on it.
Realizing that he has to get serious about training, Jay hires Fish as his sparring partner and starts paying more than cursory attention to Wynton. Just as he's getting serious, though, in walks a force of nature in the form of Nina (Montego Glover), one of Jay's sisters. All of a sudden, Jay's growing sense of his own power is challenged, and he must consider the reality of both his situation and his potential lack of ability to deal with it, no matter how well trained he has become.
To divulge more would be to spoil the vast but effective shift of gears in Mr. Ramirez's dramaturgy. Needless to say, Ms. Montego, a Tony nominee for her performance in Memphis, becomes the proverbial "force to be reckoned with."
Ms. Chavkin, a New York director best known for her environmental staging of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, is a very resourceful director. Here, she works in the round on a set (by Nicholas Vaughan) consisting of a platform that serves mostly as a boxing ring. There's no fight choreographer credited (though Anthony Bruner served as the production's "boxing consultant"), but the cast creates excitement with movement, a prop here and there, some sounds (designed by Matt Hubbs) including clapping, lighting shifts (designed by Austin R. Smith), and at a few points the costumes (designed by Denitsa Bliznakova) get into the act.
It is all very exciting, even if there's not a lot of actual boxing, and the dramatic tension builds to the point where Ms. Glover appears. Here's where the play becomes difficult for Ms. Chavkin's concept: Ms. Glover needs to let some air out of this big balloon that Ms. Chavkin and the actors have constructed in order to build back to the finale. The audience expects more theatrical ritual and doesn't get it.
Still, the cast performs smartly, and the play's point about finding your own personal power as African-American in a racist society is eventually made in shattering fashion.
Barry Edelstein, the Old Globe's Artistic Director, has been exposing audiences to new artists whose art he thinks the Globe's audience should see and whose voices they should hear. Both Mr. Ramirez and Ms. Chavkin qualify, and I think Globe patrons will be glad to experience them at this point in their development.
The Old Globe presents The Royale, by Marco Ramirez, through November 2, 2014, at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre on the Old Globe campus in San Diego's Balboa Park. Tickets available by calling (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623] or at www.theoldglobe.org.
Directed by Rachel Chavkin, with scenic design by Nicholas Vaughan, costume design by Denitsa Bliznakova, lighting design by Austin R. Smith, and sound design by Matt Hubbs.
The cast includes Montego Glover (Nina), John Lavelle (Max), Okieriete Onaodowan (Fish), Robert Christopher Riley (Jay), and Ray Anthony Thomas (Wynton).