Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

The Royale
Olney Theatre Center
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's reviews of Escaped Alone and Fences

Jaysen Wright and Clayton Pelham Jr.
Photo by courtesy of Olney Theatre Center
Audiences who come to The Royale expecting just to see one man facing down prejudice will soon realize that playwright Marco Ramirez is using his characters to tell a much larger story. The play, now in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center, is intensely physical (as befits its subject, boxing), powered by Paige Hernandez's direction and choreography and, just as importantly, by Cliff Williams III's fight choreography.

Ramirez started out with the story of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, and his 1910 defeat of the previous white champion (whom white boxing fans called "The Great White Hope"), but he fictionalizes the characters and events to make a more general point about the backlash that often follows such a public, defiant action.

To emphasize the sports-as-life metaphor, scenic designer Debra Kim Sivigny has configured the black box theater as a boxing ring, with seating on two sides. The five actors, a tight ensemble, bring the audience into the action by standing among them at times and inviting their participation.

Jay "Sport" Jackson (Jaysen Wright) is cocky because he knows he's good. He needles a challenger (Clayton Pelham Jr.), then after the fight praises him for his skill. He has an easy friendship with his trainer Wynton (Jay Frisby) and a cordial relationship with his white promoter Max (Chris Genebach), but he's most concerned about taking on the retired white champion to prove his legitimacy. He only begins thinking about the bigger picture—white men wanting to kill him and attacking African-American fans who admire him too vociferously—after a visit from a woman he knew years earlier (Lolita Marie).

Much of the 90-minute play consists of stylized boxing bouts, staged by Hernandez and Williams (supported by Kenny Neal's sound design) without actual physical contact. One boxer throws a punch, the other reels back, but they're fighting side by side instead of facing each other. More than an arresting stage effect, it brings the audience into the heads of the combatants. Sarah Tundermann's lighting design, including period fixtures, and Kelly Colburn's projections add perspective.

This production is a partnership between Olney Theatre Center and 1st Stage in Tysons Corner, Virginia, where it will be restaged early next year.

Olney Theatre Center
The Royale
October 2nd - 27th, 2019
By Marco Ramirez
Max: Chris Genebach
Nina: Lolita Marie
Fish: Clayton Pelham Jr.
Wynton: Jay Frisby
Jay: Jaysen Wright
Directed and choreographed by Paige Hernandez
Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road
Olney, MD
Ticket Information: 301-924-3400 or