By Marco Ramirez
Directed by Daniel Aukin
Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City, Calif.
Through June 2, 2013
For African-Americans at the turn of the 20th Century, Jack Johnson was a source of both pride and anxiety – pride because he was a heavyweight boxing champion in the early 1900s and he stuck it to a segregated, oppressive white America. And it was precisely that attitude that also made his brothers and sisters anxious, not so much for him as for themselves.
“Stepin Fetchit” he was not. Johnson taunted his opponents in or out of the ring and flaunted his zest for fast cars, expensive clothing and, especially, white women. He drove white supremacists crazy.
In the South and other parts of the nation back then, any black man, young or old, was always at risk of being lynched for the vaguest of reasons: being uppity, arguing with (or, god forbid, striking) a white man, checking out (or, god really forbid, hitting on) a white female, trying to vote or simply because a gang of white men in white sheets felt like indulging their cruelty then and there.
Johnson seemed not overly worried about any of that. His fellow blacks, however, were; they feared that if white supremacists couldn’t lay hands on Johnson, they might very well lay hands on the nearest black person and lynch him, just to let Johnson know how things stood then.
In The Royale, playwright Ramirez tracks Johnson’s cocky, confident personality closely in the character Jay Jackson (David St. Louis). Like the real-life Johnson, Jackson is the black heavyweight champion – yes, that’s right: the black, segregated champion – but he’s not content with that; he wants to fight and defeat Bernard Bixby, the putative white heavyweight king (the real-life title holder in 1906-1908 was a Canadian, Tommy Burns).
The play pivots around Jackson’s preparations for a showdown fight with Bixby (an unseen figure), even though there’s no contract for such a bout and Bixby is supposedly reluctant to climb into the ring with a black man – especially Jay Jackson.
Nevertheless, Jackson presses ahead with his goal, aided by his sister, Nina (Diarra Oni Kilpatrick); his trainer, Wynton (Robert Gossett); his sparring partner, Fish (Desean Terry); and a promoter/ring announcer Max (Keith Szarabajka).
All four characters are interwoven with Jay and his egomania, but it’s hard to explain just how and why. That’s not meant as a spoiler-alert; rather, it’s because the story line seems to wander off into the tall weeds and gets lost as the play progresses.
For example, Nina is sometimes credible as Jay’s flesh-and-blood, here-and-now sibling and, at other times, she seems more like a spirit hovering over Jay and commenting from on-high. I found the transition from one to the other confusing.
Similarly, Wynton is sharply in focus at first as having Jay’s back, but drifts out of focus as he recounts his own boxing career thwarted by racism decades earlier. Max is a blowhard who invents a century ahead of its time that annoying, elongated introduction favored by so many announcers today (HERE’S Jay!!!). And Fish is a throw-in, providing some energetic action as Jay’s sparring partner and, later, as a bartender serving drinks as Jay and the unseen Bixby duke it out for the champion’s belt.
A very inventive and riveting aspect of this play is the synchronized but arrhythmic foot-stomping and hand-clapping of the supporting actors, interjected without dialogue throughout the play.
Like some percussive Greek Chorus, their thumps and staccato beats can be interpreted in many ways: powerful body blows inflicted by one fighter upon another? An ominous development in Jay’s pursuit of the title? The short, fast jabs of a fight? Or a quickening of the story?
Director Daniel Aukin keeps the performers in near-constant motion; Ameenah Kaplan is the percussive choral director of Movement and Rhythm; Lap Chi Chu brightens and darkens the single set so deftly as to make the audience feel they’re sometimes in the ring with Jay and sometimes way out in the cheap seats; Ryan Rumery provides original music and sounds appropriate to both time and place.