Noah Golden, Associate Connecticut Critic
It’s an interesting coincidence that Collective Consciousness Theatre’s stirring production of “The Royale” opened only two days after Long Wharf’s “An Iliad.” While they are two wildly different shows, both share surprisingly similar bones. Both are stories told by people of color. Both use narratives based on history to tell a larger, parable-like story. Both use stylized movement and music. Both are about the way society views violence and the perils of toxic masculinity. It’s the ongoing battles that separate the two. For “Iliad,” that conflict is the Trojan War, while “The Royale” centers on Jim Crow-era racism. The hero at the center of Collective Consciousness’ play is a fighter whose biggest opponent is the bigotry he faces on a national scale. This is another great choice for the socially-minded company (henceforth referred to as CCT), even if the production is one small stroke shy of being a total knock-out.
“The Royale,” by Marco Ramirez, tells the story of Jay “The Sport” Jackson (based loosely on real heavyweight champ Jack Johnson), a black boxer in the early 20th century. We first meet him fighting a younger opponent. Despite their similar skin color, the two don’t seem to share a lot in common. Jay (Christopher Bethune) is calm and dignified; he speaks eloquently and with no trace of accent. He refuses to stay in Black Only hotels and is, according to the testament of others, a hit with the white ladies. His challenger, “Fish” Hawkins (Oliver Sai Lester), is unpolished and nervous; a talented, tenacious boxer whose less-than-elegant drawl tells of an impoverished childhood.
They brawl, standing on either side of David Sepulveda and Jamie Burnett’s distressed-wood-paneled set, never touching. But punches are thrown, blows deliver and, with the clang of that classic boxing bell, Jay is declared the winner. But he’s just beginning to fight.
Most of the play concerns Jay’s desire to beat Mr. Bixby, the United States Heavyweight Champ who is currently retired. He’s also white. With the help of his trainer Wynton (Gregoire Mouning) and promoter Max (Ian Alderman), Bixby agrees to a headline-making title fight. But is the country ready for a negro heavyweight champ? And is Jay hiding some uncomfortable truths about his roots?
From that synopsis, it may sound like “The Royale” is a standard issue sports narrative. There are echoes of that – the wise coach, the scrappy underdog, the climactic big fight – but Ramirez manages to sidestep many of the genre’s clichés. Besides, the technicality of boxing seems of little interest to him. The title match and the retooled story of Jack Johnson are a vehicle for him to talk about race and identity, discrimination and self-image, power and machismo. The metaphors he’s working with are heavy and not quite handled with the nimble, enigmatic grace of something like “Topdog/Underdog” (the highlight of CCT’s ’17-’18 season), but the script is tight and smart.
It helps that the ensemble is terrific and brings these characters to fully-formed life, even when Ramirez hasn’t supplied them with much backstory. Lester gives depth and nuance to Fish, an amateur fighter who later becomes Jay’s sparring partner and confidant. Mouning has a likable, craggily, humble stage presence perfectly balancing out Alderman’s expressive, carnival barker showmanship. Tamika Pettway (of CCT’s “Sunset Baby”) shines in her few scenes as a living reminder of Jay’s past. But it’s Bethune who does a lot of the heavy lifting, delivering a magnetic, thoughtful performance as a man whose hubris hides many scars.
It’s all swiftly and tidily orchestrated by director Jenny Nelson who uses some formalistic techniques to create handsome stage pictures. Scenes are underscored by actors stomping and clapping in rhythm. Jamie Burnett’s flawless lighting helps divide the small black box stage into different, distinct playing spaces. Nelson’s best touch might be having the whole cast stay on stage during the 90-minute run-time; when not needed for a scene, the cast sits in antique wooden chairs on a raised platform behind the action. Not only does that create an atmosphere of claustrophobia, but the sense that the nation – and history at large – always has their prying eyes on Jay.
It’s all seamlessly done and a real pleasure to watch. If one can find criticism here, it is that the fight scenes feel a little too sterile and anemic. Perhaps Michelle Burns’ choreography lacked some tactical oomph, especially since glove never actually touches flesh. But maybe having the most intense and emotionally arresting scenes be of verbal rather than physical sparring is part of the larger point Ramirez and Nelson are trying to make.
For Jackson, the fight in the ring is nothing compared to the one he faces every day. It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that Jay’s quest for a place in the national spotlight – as a boxer and a black man living in segregated, racist America – has big, bloody consequences.
What a shame that stories like this are still frightfully relevant.
What a boon that New Haven has a theater company that can tell these stories and do so with such care and creativity.
“The Royale” by Marco Ramirez and directed by Jenny Nelson, runs through April 14 at Collective Consciousness Theatre in New Haven, CT (319 Peck Street, Building #6S, 2nd Floor, Studio D). The cast includes Ian Alderman (Max), Christopher Bethune (Jay “The Sport” Jackson), Oliver Sai Lester (“Fish” Hawkins), Gregoire Mouning (Wynton) and Tamika Pettway (Nina). The creative team includes Michelle Burns (assistant director/choreographer), Ashley Sweet (stage manager), Emiley Charley (propmaster/ASM), David Sepulveda (set design), Jamie Burnett (set and lighting design), Carol Koumbaros (costume design), Tommy Rosati (sound design) and Dexter J. Singleton (producer).