Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The Royale is set in the early 1900s and follows the story of boxer Jay Jackson, the Negro Heavyweight Champion, who aspires for more; he wants to be the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. After constantly prodding his fight promoter Max to line up a match with the world champion Bernard Bixby, Jay gets his wish when Bixby is willing to come out of retirement to fight him, but for the right price. With the support of his coach Wynton and his sparring partner Fish, Jay feels he is ready to fight this white man. However, when Jay is confronted by his sister Nina he must weigh the price of his potential personal gain against the possible ramifications of winning and what the aftermath of a black man beating a white man could have across the country at a time when segregation was still the law and African Americans were perceived by many as second class citizens.
Ramirez based Jackson on Jack Johnson, who was the first black heavyweight boxing champion and who Howard Sackler also used as the basis for his 1969 Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning drama The Great White Hope. Both plays reflect the issues of segregation and racism in the early 1900s. While The Royale is about a boxer, we also see how Ramirez uses boxing and the story of Jay to show how one black man's struggle to succeed in a white man's world is representative of what many minorities face when trying to change things for the better while suffering the possible consequences or setbacks of their actions. The biggest opponent Jay faces isn't Bixby but the bigotry he and so many others were fighting against at the time of the play and what so many are still facing today.
Ramirez's stylized play, under Michael John Garcés succinct and superb direction, uses a series of hand claps, foot stomps, vocal outbursts, and stylized movement to depict in a highly theatrical way the constant blows, both physical and verbal, that Jay and any individual potentially faces when trying to succeed in a world in which they are in the minority. However, as lean and taut as the play is, running just under 90 minutes, the last section, where we see how the match plays out in Jay's mind, doesn't quite have the impact it could if it were a bit less heavy handed. Fortunately, that's the only small drawback in an otherwise sharp and relevant drama.
The cast in this production is excellent. Bechir Sylvain is cocky, charming, charismatic and confident as Jay, though when his sister enters the scene, we see how he begins to question his actions and his drive to succeed. As Nina, Erica Chamblee is on the sidelines for the first hour of the play, and when she finally speaks, we see that she is the voice of reason of the piece, making Jay understand what the real world is like outside of the ring. Chamblee makes Nina a powerful presence, with her honest, level-headed words as much of a blow as one of Jay's uppercuts. When she asks Jay if he has thought about the repercussions of what could happen if he wins, we start to see how it's sometimes necessary to look at the consequences of one's actions and how Ramirez uses that simple examination to make his play depict more than just the personal story of a fighter. Edwin Lee Gibson, Roberto Antonio Martin, and Peter Howard are all very effective as the three supportive men in Jay's life who shield and protect him in different ways.
Creative aspects are excellent. Scenic designer Misha Kachman, lighting designer Allen Willner, and sound designer Brian Jerome Peterson deliver some impressive and realistic-looking and sounding stage images full of electricity. Sarita Fellows' costume designs are period perfect.
Today, racial tensions are still high, some white people still fear those who look different, and some are afraid of any changes to the status quo when the current state puts them in a superior position. The Royale is a lean play with a much bigger message, depicting how one black man's personal struggle reflects the broader fight of minorities in the world around him. Arizona Theatre Company's production has a perfect cast and excellent creative elements which make for a thought-provoking, poignant, poetic and powerful play that resonates and stings in its impact and relevance.
Arizona Theatre Company's The Royale runs through October 20, 2019, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix AZ. Tickets and information are available at www.arizonatheatre.org or by phone at 602-2566995.
Playwright: Marco Ramirez
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.