The match between oneself and one’s own soul is sometimes just as brutal as a physical match between two people. THE ROYALE at Cleveland Play House pounds at just such a story now through May 27, 2018 on the Outcalt Theatre Stage in the Allen Theatre Complex at Playhouse Square.
Jay Jackson (Preston Butler III) is a massive presence in the boxing world in the early 1900s. He’s so good at the sport, that they call him “The Sport.” As the Negro Heavyweight Champion, Jackson won’t settle for anything less than Champion of Everything – white or black. He wants to beat the best, calling out the white retired Heavyweight Champion, and demanding a match.
The story is inspired by the very real Jack Johnson, the first African American Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the world.
Our fictitious Jay Jackson spends 85 minutes on stage in a rhythmic, choreographed dance of control with trainer Wynton (Brian D. Coats), white promoter Max (Leo Marks), sparring partner Fish (Johnny Ramey), and sister Nina (Nikkole Salter). The quintet uses a circular stage that mimics both a boxing ring and a floor-sized drum to thump the thunder of the story into both words and wisdom.
Wynton provides the wisdom of an old-timer, experienced with the ways of the harsh world as he pushes Jackson to be his best. Fish is an up-and-comer who’s got the spark of a Champion in the making, and the heart of a little brother. Max is a blowhard promoter, putting everything on the line to push his Champion, who he knows is the world’s Champion (regardless of color).
As Jackson and Fish fight (never making contact), they arc around each other, addressing the crowd instead of each other. They are methodical as they cut and jab towards the crowd, never touching one another, creating movements that are powerful and graceful. In their initial meeting, they bad-mouth one another to the audience as they fight, creating a match that has a surprise energy in its lack of actual bodily hits. It’s poetic and it’s playful. But Jackson is clearly boss in the end.
When Jackson trains, he is raw emotion and laced with trash talk. His intentions are multi-layered, and he wants to represent both himself and all people of color. But his approach doesn’t sit well with everyone. With Jackson’s name becoming prominent, the reserved and settled Nina is scared for her family’s safety, as there are people who don’t want to see a boxing match between the white champ and a black man. She lashes out, “Who appointed you spokesperson for Colored People, Incorporated?” She is terrified of the ramifications of his actions.
As Jackson’s fame intensifies, his media exposure puts a new spotlight on not only him, but on his family and friends. Will there be repercussions? But Jackson won’t back down: he wants to earn that “Fight of the Century,” and to win it at all costs.
Director Robert Barry Fleming (Associate Artistic Director at Cleveland Play House) has staged every round of this theatrical encounter simply and stunningly. The actors enter and exit through the audience, up and down the stairs, and play on the upper levels as well as the main stage. The use of beats through hand clapping and foot stomps brings a primal, edgy feel that heightens the anticipation.
“It’s an exciting show set in 1910, but it’s executed with the hip-hop swagger of 2018,” says Fleming, promising an adrenaline rush for audiences.
What does it mean to be an athlete in the early 1900s? What does it mean to be an African American athlete in the early 1900s? How does the world view an African American contender in the early 1900s? Fleming fights through these dangerous questions with this talented cast.
The Design Team brings everything together. Jason Ardizonne-West (Scenic Designer), Toni-Leslie James (Costume Designer), Alan C. Edwards (Lighting Designer), and Jane Shaw (Sound Designer) draw everything into the time period, and create a world of suspense and sporting excitement.
Playwright Marco Ramirez wins this match, having created a truly memorable and riveting piece.
The meat of the text is written as if the actors are sparring with words – quick, tight, stinging. And Ramirez’s ending leaves the audience feeling as if they’ve been sucker punched in the gut: the full understanding of what is happening is like being knocked to the floor. We’re only seeing the beginning of a whole new fight.
THE ROYALE is the centerpiece of the NewGround Theatre Festival. The 85-minute play runs without an intermission now through May 27 on the Outcalt Theatre stage. Tickets are $25-$110 each, $15 rush tickets for currently enrolled students under age 25 with valid student ID, and Young Professional discounts available with YP-CPH Membership. For tickets and information call 216-241-6000 or visit www.clevelandplayhouse.com.
The NewGround Theatre Festival (NGTF) provides the chance for playwrights to develop and showcase their work while offering Cleveland audiences the opportunity to see remarkable new plays come to life. The Festival will run from May 11th – May 19th. NGTF would not be possible without the generous support of Honorary Producer Roe Green.