Playwright Marco Ramirez described the set for The Royale this way: "A heavy bag, some stools, and some chalk dust. That's the whole set."
The play opens in half-light as an announcer introduces two fighters. As each name is called, fans clap rhythmically. They sit on wooden bleachers on either side of the stage, beneath windows resembling stained glass, perhaps conveying a quasi-religious experience of boxing fans. American Stage has also added an even more visually striking dimension — nine rows of huge flashbulbs at the rear of the stage.
When favorite Jay Jackson takes the stage, a half-dozen in the ensemble again clap in three sets of three. The circular bulbs light up, accompanied by the sound of explosive flash powder.
So from its opening moments, this production directed by Lisa Tricomi serves notice that its storytelling will not follow a standard narrative. The character of Jay (Aygemang Clay) loosely follows that of Jack Johnson, the heavyweight champion whose story inspired Muhammad Ali. The story is set between 1905 and 1910, peak Jim Crow years during which Johnson, who was black, dominated the sport.
Jay is cocky and ambitious and no fool. He doesn't want to be "your Negro heavyweight champion," he just wants to be champion. And with 76 fights under his belt, it's about time he got a shot.
But who is Jay fighting? That is the real question.
At the start of the play it's Fish (Rich Lowe), a black shipyard laborer. He lasts seven rounds, which is almost unheard of.
The fighters don't actually trade punches or even face each other. They face the audience, slipping and moving and thinking out loud. The meter of their words matters as much as the content, because this whole show is basically a 70-minute prose poem.
The sounds they make — slapping their own bodies, stomping a bare wood floor — in this poetic interpretation of a fight very much approximate a real one. Both Jay and Fish, who will become Jay's sparring partner, are in terrific condition and obviously trained hard for their roles. (Lowe in particular showed impressive footwork and head movement.)
Jay's opponent is going to be Bixby, a retired white champion. Getting the deal took time and some not-very-effective negotiations on his behalf by promoter Max (Richard B. Watson), whose racism is mostly out of the closet. The financial give and take mirrors Jay's treatment by the press, which can't get enough of him but buries his fights with other black men in the back of the sports section.
Clay made for an appealing underdog, with the mixture of swagger and underlying business savvy that made Johnson formidable. Yet Johnson was also vulnerable to counterattack by forces that didn't want to see a black champion, particularly one who has affairs with white women.
Jay's sister Nina (Rokia Shearin) serves as the play's moral conscience. Shearin's portrayal is believably hard-edged in skepticism for this venture into a world where white men feel free to break their own laws.
None of the rest would matter were it not for Kim Sullivan, who plays Wynton, Jay's trainer and muse. A harrowing story of battles "royale," which taught him to survive in the ring, reveal the true stakes in an indirect yet chilling way. It's an exquisite performance.
As Jay sees it, "The person most likely to take you down ain't even in the ring."
The dialogue pulsates with humanity and menace, at a syncopated clip. And while this show style is nontraditional bordering on the avant-garde, the questions is raises are unambiguous.
Chief among them is this: Fighters fear losing. What happens when it's even more dangerous to win?
Contact Andrew Meacham at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.