Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Royale takes place over a year in the life of Jay Jackson, a black boxer in early 20th century Jim Crow. The fictitious character is based on the real Jack Johnson who, in 1908, became the first African American to win the title as Heavyweight Champion of the World, defying the Jim Crow restriction on matches between black and white boxers. Johnson had held the title World Colored Heavyweight Champion, but that was viewed as a lesser rank. Johnson beat the de-facto world champion, Canadian Tommy Burns, in 1908, but was decried by some as a false champion, as the previous official world champ, Jeff Jeffries, had retired undefeated. For two years Johnson hounded Jeffries to return to the ring so that Johnson could once and for all prove himself Champion of the World, while a host of white boxing fans searching for a "great white hope" to take the title away from Johnson, also urged Jeffries to return. In 1910 that match, dubbed "the fight of the century" took place. Johnson won, proving himself indisputably the Heavyweight Champion of the World, a title he retained for five years.
Ramirez combined those two historic matches, inventing World Colored Champion Jay "The Sport" Jackson who demands that his promoter Max draw the retired world champion, here named Bernard Bixby, out of retirement. Jackson contends that Bixby is not the world white champion, but the champion of the world, period. That's the title The Sport wants, knowing it challenges Jim Crow and the deliberate barriers holding African Americans back. He believes he can be the first to break through those barriers, and will not be stopped. To prepare for the match he hires one of his toughest opponents, called Fish, as his sparring partner, and the two become fast friends. Jackson's trainer Wynton believes The Sport can take the title, but also knows it will come with a heavy price, including the possibility of violence against a black man audacious enough to claim the highest title. Jackson's sister Nina travels from their Mississippi home to urge her brother to reconsider, yet she is part of the inspiration that drives him to persevere.
There is no actual boxing on view in The Royale. Instead, Jackson and his opponents enact the intense and strenuous moves of boxing facing the audience rather than each other, thrusting their fists forward, indicating the jabs that connect with a mighty stomp upon the wood-planked boxing ring that in the elegant set designed by Katie Phillips, and the recipient of those blows recoils backward, expressing with the face and voice the degree of pain they absorb. Aaron Newman's sound design provides percussive beats, augmented by other characters' hand claps that give each match a rhythm and pulse, with two combatants racing against the clock to knock their opponent out. Cast member Santino Craven is credited with coaching the actors in these choreographed segments, and the effect is mesmerizing.
David Murray (Coalhouse Walker in Theatre Latté Da's Ragtime) returns from his New York City base to play Jay Jackson. He delivers the character's confidence, intelligence and swagger, convincingly determined to be "the first," not for fortune but as a matter of principal. He is also charming and articulate with the press that follows him everywhere (lighting designer Courtney Schmitz uses flashbulbs popping to great effect in marking Jackson's celebrity status). Twin City acting veteran James Craven is a perfect voice of experience as Jackson's trainer, pushing his man to grab the ring but all too aware of the pitfalls ahead. Charles Fraser as the promoter conveys the difficult balance between being a "good" white man, making Jackson's career his own life's work, with having to do business in a world where whites hold all the cards. Santino Craven (James' son) gives a moving depiction of Fish's devoted friendship and support for Jay. Tamala Lacy, as Jackson's sister, makes an impassioned case for accepting a status quo that may hold her people back, but at least allows them to live.
Music is used effectively as a backdrop to The Royale with obscure roadhouse blues tunes greeting the audience in the theater, and maintaining the connection between scenes. As mentioned, light, sound and set all converge to create the environment to support the text and performances, and Aaron Chvatal's period costumes contribute as well, including a gorgeous dress worn by Nina, ivory in color, as if that is as close to white as she dares. The design elements are all seamlessly integrated into heat of the play, with such details as Nina stopping to remove her hat pin before taking off her hat.
The real Jack Johnson's story was no slight footnote in sports history, but a major step in the slow progress toward equality among the races. Incidentally, Howard Sackler's 1967 play The Great White Hope and the 1970 movie based on it, also draws from Jack Johnson's saga, with its protagonist named Jack Jefferson. If Sackler's play is closer to a biography of Johnson, The Royale is conceived more as an allegory, providing a way of understanding the inner drive and courage, along with a large dose of egotism, to look squarely at a wall and declare that the wall is coming down.
The Royale is one of the very best Twin Cities productions mounted so far in the 2017-2018 seasondare I say, a total knockout. I will happily return to Yellow Tree, but they will be hard-pressed to match the caliber of this production any time soon.
The Royale continues at Yellow Tree Theatre through March 4, 2018, 320 5th Ave SE, Osseo MN. Tickets $23.00 - $27.00; $10.00 rush tickets starting 30 minutes before each performance, pending availability. For information and tickets call 763-493-8733 or visit YellowTreeTheatre.com.
Writer: Marco Ramirez; Director: Austene Van; Scenic Design: Katie Philips; Costume Design: Aaron Chvatal; Lighting Design: Courtney Schmitz; Sound Design: Aaron Newman; Prop Design: Abbee Warmboe; Fight Choreography: Santino Craven; Stage Manager: Mark Tietz.
Cast: James Craven (Wynton), Santino Craven (Fish), Charles Fraser (Max), Tamala Lacy (Nina), David Murray (Jay).