a theatre, film & pop culture review
Who: Marco Ramirez, playwright; Rachel Chavkin, director
Where: Lincoln Center Theater
When: February 11-May 1, 2016
Why Watch: Currently the co-showrunner of Netflix’s Daredevil, the Cuban-American playwright has also written for Orange Is the New Black and Sons of Anarchy, among others, and while he’s written other plays, The Royale marks Ramirez’s Off-Broadway debut. Director Rachel Chavkin, who previously staged The Royale at the Old Globe in San Diego, is the visionary director behind Dave Malloy’s immersive Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (coming to Broadway next season) and other spectacular productions like Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge.
Loosely based on the life of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight world champion (Ken Burns made a doc about him), The Royale follows Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Khris Davis), a cocky and charismatic Negro heavyweight champion. In 1905, Jackson, buoyed by his seasoned coach (Clarke Peters), aggressive promoter (John Lavelle), and idealistic protege (McKinley Belcher III), confronts institutionalized racism – and his sister’s (Montego Glover) weary ambivalence of his blind ambition – as he fights for the right to enter the ring with the white heavyweight champion of the day.
Like his pugilist subject, Ramirez’s script plays fast and loose with vocal jabs both percussive and poetic. Not a single punch lands on flesh – this ain’t no Rocky. Instead, blows are signified with powerfully choreographed stomps, punctuated with hand claps and thigh slaps. With the grace of a dancer and the ferocity of a fighter, Davis struts and swaggers as he circles his – at times invisible – opponent, magnifying the tension. Coming in at a lean 90 minutes, Chavkin’s production is as tight and focused as Jackson himself, infused with her innate musicality on top of Ramirez’s already rhythmic dialogue. The Royale accomplishes the best of musical theatre without ever singing a note; its ‘s elegant amalgamation of heightened sound (Matt Hubbs) and lighting (Austin R. Smith), storytelling movement, and poetic language played out on an imaginatively open wooden space (Nick Vaughan).
The cast is excellent across the board, but Montego Glover is luminous as Jackson’s stern, worried sister who instills the prizefighter with a necessary sense of doubt and racial awareness. And, in a pivotal, theatrically surprising scene, she too enters the ring, embodying the race that could be lifted up – or suppressed further – by Jackson’s physical triumph. When that climactic bout ends in a deafening silence with Jackson still standing, it’s not clear who – besides the audience of this sharp play – has won.
Bechdel Test: FAIL