‘The Royale’ packs a punch at Aurora Theatre Company

by Caroline Smith, November 13, 2017

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Is it possible to stage a boxing match without any physical fighting?

In “The Royale,” which made its Bay Area premiere at the Aurora Theatre Company, the answer is a resounding “Yes.” The play, written by Marco Ramirez, is inspired by the story of the first Black heavyweight world boxing champion, Jack Johnson. In its 90-minute run time, it depicts the year leading up to Johnson’s historic 1908 fight against the white reigning champion.

For creative license, Johnson is transformed into Jay “The Sport” Jackson by Calvin M. Thompson, whose wit and charisma harks back to that which made Johnson one of the first celebrity-athletes. The opening boxing match occurs without an actual (or stage) punch thrown, as Jackson and opponent Fish (Satchel André) stand on opposite sides of the stage, jousting and receiving blows with perfect timing though separated by distance.

Far less up-tempo in tone than may be expected for a show about boxing, “The Royale” instead embarks upon an introspective look at what it takes to be “the first” — coupled with the adversities and challenges that come with being the first Black champion at the peak of Jim Crow laws and segregation. Even Jackson’s white manager Max (Tim Kniffin), who alleges himself dedicated to Jackson’s goals, slips racist epithets into his speech — a damning critique of white allyship from the play’s author.

“This country’s been waiting for this fight, whether they like it or not,” says Jackson’s trainer Wynton (Donald E. Lacy, Jr.) about the upcoming monumental fight. “The Royale” is filled with similarly potent lines that reverberate into the present with an unsightly relevance, made most effective in their forceful deliveries by each character of the intimate cast of five. The audience is given some time to process these moments, though purposefully not enough to consider their full ramifications, producing a thoroughly unsettling result. The cast, in turn, plays their respective roles with a realistic earnestness — each individually conveying what it takes to help Jackson challenge racial discrimination and prejudice.

Strongest in its demonstrations of the gravity by which racial barriers were (and are) publicly enforced within the United States, “The Royale” demonstrates that white patronage and support of Black celebrities is no buffer to racism. The play’s pitch-perfect observations of the overwhelmingly white crowds for Jackson’s early 20th-century boxing matches were eerily echoed by the majority-white audience of “The Royale” itself. Majority-white patronage to theater, even that which focuses upon narratives for people of color, is a contemporary problem addressed by director Darryl Jones in an interview with The Daily Californian.

This audience sat around three sides of the three-quarter thrust Main Stage, immediately providing the illusion of a boxing ring. The set by Richard Olmsted visually reflected the lack of narrative pretension — it’s minimalist in design, ensuring that the audience’s focus remains on the characters, but elegant and sparingly embellished, allowing for every set piece to be of importance. Notable pieces include the wooden American flag backdrop, before which Jackson poses for his (at first) humorous and cocky photo shoots, and the above-head square with attached light bulbs, denoting the boxing ring below on the unmarked stage.

Unfortunately, however, many of the play’s initial one-liners, while admirable in their intent to tonally alleviate the show, failed to land with the crowd. The haunting, prolonged reflections by characters are near-poetic, such as trainor Wynton’s recollection of the titular “Royale,” yet the introductions to these moments are jarring  in a sense that comes across unpolished. The transitions between scenes feel forced at times, causing subsequent scenes to feel initially disjointed, even though each is retrospectively important in the overarching narrative.

While the play struggles to find its narrative rhythm, the musical elements of the show — characters pound their feet, clap their hands and yell percussive, bitter “Hahs!” to the scene’s tempo — allow it to shine brightly. These include the mournful humming of Nina (Atim Udoffia), whose character’s introduction as the play nears its climax allows the achievement of a knockout ending. Her presence interjects the full-bodied heart, grounding and context not fully present within the show beforehand — a testament to Udoffia’s affecting performance in the demanding role.

The full cast wholly devotes itself to its portrayal of the underrecognized story of Jack Johnson through telling that of Jay Jackson. All the more, the contemporary relevance with which the production is staged is realized in a series of moments that come across like successfully landed punches. “The Royale” at the Aurora ultimately largely lives up to the praise garnered by the play’s original staging, though it falters slightly in the delivery of its jabs.

“The Royale” will run at the Main Stage of the Aurora Theatre Company through Dec. 3.

Caroline Smith covers theater. Contact her at carolinesmith@dailycal.org.