Imagine a play centered on boxing in which not a single punch visibly connects to a body, yet we feel every blow, in which character drives narrative and racially based conflict is without cliché. Playwright Marco Ramirez’s tightly written, enthralling “six rounds” are insightfully penned and placed in historical context based on actual events. The beautifully acted piece is helmed by inspired Director Rachel Chavkin, resulting in one of the most original productions I’ve seen in some time. Don’t shy away because of subject matter.
“And now the fight you came for. The fight you paid your well earned green for…” barks promoter Max (John Lavelle). Circuit boxer Jay Johnson (Khris Davis) is taking on a newbie nicknamed “Fish” (McKinley Belcher III). As he taunts the amateur with oddly benevolent good humor, we hear interjections by Max and trainer, Wynton (Clarke Peters). These are punctuated by the men’s synchronized claps which come and go within narrative like a Greek chorus.
Khris Davis and Clarke Peters
Instead of contact sport, we see the men move around sharing internal dialogue. “…Focus!…He’s all talk, He ain’t nothing…Breathe, Don’t lock…What’s that taste? Spit. Blood…a lamb to slaughter…” When blows connect, the aggressor literally stomps. Fish’s knock-out is indicated by Max and Wynton lifting and dropping the two heavy posts with rope between (one side of the ring) BOOM! One reflexively recoils.
His camp, admiring Fish’s perseverance and recognizing his potential, hire the boy as a sparring partner.
Jay Johnson is determined to fight the current World Heavyweight Champion who has since retired. Max insists he should continue outside the system, where, by greasing palms, he’s managed to provide a decent life. His fighter threatens to find another promoter.
When the deal is negotiated, against advice, Johnson agrees to give up 90 percent of the take “win or lose” for a shot at the title. The fight will be unprecedented – a black man in the ring with a white champ. Both current prejudice and the protagonist’s character are skillfully illuminated at a press conference.
Khris Davis, McKinley Belcher III, Clarke Peters
Discovering that guns and knives have been confiscated at the entrance to his fights, Johnson realizes a level of personal danger that apparently never occurred to him. Still, there’s no question of aborting the match. On the night of the event, however, his sister Nina (Montego Glover) unexpectedly shows up with evidence of threats to the family. She insists they’re already proud and wants him to walk away. We learn what may fuel Johnson’s anger and tenacity.
A conversation with Wynton, wherein reference to the play’s title becomes clear, wisely does not resolve Johnson’s thinking. Once in the ring, he’s told, you’re alone.
The fight itself is brilliantly conceived. Johnson’s demons actively confront him in a way you won’t be able to imagine without the clumsy help of a reviewer (not me). What ensues is emotionally painful and utterly gripping. Consequences are also wonderfully manifest with a pithy but not heavy handed touch.
Montego Glover, Khris Davis
There isn’t a weak link in the company. Though Max could be successfully portrayed as more exaggerated a character, actor John Lavelle is believable both with florid announcing and concern about the business of the business. McKinley Belcher III (Fish) is fully dimensional and entirely sympathetic, especially when encountering his first taste of luxury. As Wynton, Clarke Peters contributes palpably sage gravitas which balances volatility around him.
Montego Glover’s Nina is proud, stubborn, and articulate. (Ramirez has chosen to make the fighter and his sibling appear rather educated, a state not shared by the people on whom they were based. Perhaps, in fact, they were well spoken.) In her final scene, she spits well-aimed fire, then remains a potent presence.
Khris Davis’s powerful personification of Jay Johnson will resonate after applause dies out. The extremely fit thespian moves like a boxer. Davis tempers Johnson’s ego, inhabits his determination, and shares his thinking process with nuanced timing. The fact of his strength feels as true as eventual wrenching doubts. It’s manifestation of a whole man, “clarity of self in a hostile world.”
Director Rachel Chavkin (whose quote is just above), has taken a fine play and made it more compelling. Not only are her actors explicitly persuasive, but Chavkin’s creative interpretation is theatrically remarkable. Choreography embodying both internal and external battle is unique and accomplished. When actual boxing is depicted, practice is obvious. Synchronized sounds are vividly expressive. Staging area is aesthetically utilized.
Jack Johnson, on whom Jay is based
Nick Vaughan’s excellent set is comprised entirely of light wood slatted walls, floor and barriers on several well employed levels. Period gym lights and a wall of what appear to be fluorescents are graphic. Beginning with only two posts and a single side of roped ring, we tellingly progress to an entirely enclosed area at the final arena.
Costumes by Dede M. Ayite are low key and meticulously realized. Lighting by Austin R. Smith greatly enhances mood. The fighter’s giant shadow during one scene is especially redolent.
The ‘Real’ Big Fight
A terrific, part fictional biopic, The Royale was inspired by Jack Johnson, the first African American World Heavyweight boxing champion (1908-1915). ‘The Galveston Giant’ triumphed, against all odds, in the era of Jim Crow. Because of racial tension, both guns and alcohol were prohibited at his bouts. The win itself resulted in outbreaks of bigoted violence that resulted in the deaths of at least twenty people.
Johnson left school early, ricocheting between jobs. As apprentice to a carriage painter who loved boxing, he caught the bug and began to spar on the side. Along his journey, while otherwise employed, the young man roomed with several fighters. He entered the profession a defensive boxer at twenty and at thirty became champion.
By all reports an entertaining personality, Johnson also played the vaudeville circuit with stories and demonstrations and was one of the first celebrity sports figures garnering endorsement contacts.
Much of the population was uncomfortable with a black man in his position. Fixing on Johnson’s preference for white women as an excuse, local government saw to it that he was arrested on trumped up charges relating to The Mann Act “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.” He was convicted by an all white jury and fled the country for seven years only to be clapped in prison upon his return. Johnson nonetheless returned to boxing and was active until the age of sixty accruing 73 wins.
Performance Photos by T. Charles Erickson
Opening: McKinley Belcher III, John Lavelle, Clarke Peters, Khris Davis
If interested, check out: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, the 2004 Ken Burns documentary.
Lincoln Center Theater presents
The Royale by Marco Ramirez
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Through May 1, 2016
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater