“The Royale” at ACT

For those of us old enough to remember the names Joe Louis, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, and so many others, the idea of having the sport of boxing exist without having any African Americans participate in its championships is almost inconceivable. Yet when Jack Johnson broke the color barrier in 1908 and won the world championship, it was an astounding event.

Championships were for white guys. Blacks had no place in them in the regrettable Jim Crow days of our national history. But Jack Johnson wasn’t a man to be put off. He was good! He knew it; his handlers knew it. The country, however, wasn’t ready to accept it. Despite that unsavory climate, Johnson’s promoter was all for “The Fight of the Century.” Let the reigning white heavyweight champion tough it out in the ring with Johnson as his opponent.

royale-photo-by-dawn-schaefer

Photo by Dawn Schaefer

“The Royale” by Marco Ramirez retrieves that history and looks at the psychological and social issues that surround it. All the action takes place on Carey Wong’s realistically conceived boxing ring that takes up most of the stage here. There Jarrod M. Smith as the magnificent to look at Jay Jackson (the fictional Jack Johnson) trains, argues for his rights, strategizes with his handlers, and must wrestle with the possibility that his win could have serious social fall out that could be most dangerous for other people of color.

Director Ameenah Kaplan has wisely capitalized on the playwright’s desire to make the story, not its trappings, central here. No elaborate sets, no music except the pounding of hands against flesh and gloves against punching bag and the rhythmic clapping and pounding of feet. When Jay’s sister comes to visit him, to warn him about, remind him of the potential repercussions of his win, it’s just the two of them in intense and somewhat tragic discussion. This minimalism works to intensify the emotional power of the piece.

The cast members work well together. Lorenzo Roberts as Jay’s sparring partner effectively combines bravado with reticence. R Hamilton Wright and G. Valmont Thomas, the handlers who strategize to make Jay’s and their dreams come true offer just the right firmness mixed with affection and respect. And Zenobia Taylor, the sister who has, perhaps, a better read on society than does Jay, roils with emotions and fear of the repercussions of this fight yet never loses her elegance.

The story is powerful. The issues are still with us. The presentation is finely honed, and it’s well worth seeing.

Through Oct. 9, at ACT Theatre 700 Union St., Seattle, (206 292-7676 or acttheatre.org).

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