The Royale hits at a time in this country where conversations of race and equality are becoming more visible on the field in the world of sports. Marco Ramirez’s new play, currently running at the Aurora Theatre Company, pulses under the internal struggle of one African-American athlete fighting to cement his place not only in the ring but also as equal in this country.
Taking place in the Jim Crow era of 1905, The Royale is inspired by the real-life story of the first African-American heavyweight world champion, Jay “The Sport” Johnson. While a champion in his own right, Jay wanted a greater challenge to elevate his career. Jay Johnson brought famous white boxer James J. Jeffries out of retirement, in a boxing match of the ages that flared racial tensions. While Jay was determined to follow through with this match, he faced criticism from the public and peers alike, as he reflected on what prize he was truly fighting for.
Calvin M. Thompson brought an incredible energy and charisma to Jay “The Sport” Johnson, with the weight of the world resting on his shoulders. Atim Udoffia played Jay’s sister, Nina, whose sternness, and emotional plea were great counters to Jay’s sometimes naïve attitude. The prize match showed Nina “stepping in” for Jeffries, pitting Jay’s inner monologue against him. It was a brilliant scene that made Atim a towering presence onstage. Donald E. Lacy, Jr. played Wynton, Jay’s manager and close friend, who balanced being a support system with being a voice of reason for Jay’s decisions. He played the two roles well and made Donald a scene stealer along with his sense of humor.
Marco Ramirez chose to display the internal struggles of these characters out in the open, which was brilliant in fully capturing the pressure cooker the United States was in at this time with race relations. His words had rhythm, intensified by the noises, stomping, and clapping in time from the ensemble, raising the stakes of the scene. Ramirez framed this story in a way that focused on the personal struggle behind Jay’s decision on going through with the fight. All the character’s voices fit to serve this idea and revolved around Jay’s central conflict. Already a powerful story about race, it made it that much more personal by telling it from Jay’s point of view. The backdrop of the set featured the colors of the American flag overlaying a milk crate like stage created by set designer Richard Olmsted. It reminded us that this fight wasn’t only on display for boxing fans, but was under the watch of the country as a whole.
The Royale is a parable of progress. Decisions and actions carried out for the greater good must always be weighed against its consequences. Jay “The Sport” Jackson made history and advancements for people of color in sports, but it didn’t come without cost to those around him. No good deed goes unpunished. This play is unfortunately still relevant to our current political climate in this country, showing us, progress doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to make equality possible, however, works like The Royale show us theatre is a powerful tool to initiate these discussions and create the change we seek.
Jordan Nickels is a playwright and dramaturg, originally from the Midwest, with a Bachelor of Science in Theatrical Studies from Ball State University. He previously worked with Nashville Children’s Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, and The Walt Disney Company. He also served as a Blog Contributor and Managing Editor for over two years at Camp Broadway in New York City. Jordan currently resides in San Francisco, CA and works as a Development Assistant at American Conservatory Theater. Website: http://www.jordannickels.com, Twitter and Instagram: @jnickels8.
Photo: David Allen