Boxing, racism, mystery share the ring in Berkeley drama

by Sam Hurwitt, November 14, 2017

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It may seem a bit obvious to describe a play about boxing as hard-hitting, but “The Royale” isn’t just a play about boxing.

A fictionalized take on the story of Jack Johnson, the first African-American to become heavyweight world champion in 1908, Marco Ramirez’s drama is ultimately much more about the fighter’s drive to single-handedly make a change in a society that very much does not want to let him, and the terrible responsibility he feels for the people hurt by the backlash that follows.

In the play’s Bay Area premiere at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, Calvin M. Thompson is magnetically charismatic and cocky as Jay “The Sport” Jackson, Ramirez’s fictional version of Johnson, toying with his opponents and showing off for the crowd. More than anything he wants a shot at the title, despite the fact that no reigning heavyweight champ had ever even agreed to fight a black challenger.

The heavily stylized fights are fascinating to watch as choreographed by director Darryl V. Jones and boxing coach Joe Orrach. The boxers face the audience, not each other, and their blows are often represented by stomps or sharp flexes rather than actual punching motions. The sense of excitement is accentuated by driving rhythmic stomps and claps from the rest of the small cast.

There’s a percussive urgency to the pace in Jones’ staging, sometimes marked by a fast series of hand-claps to commence the action in a fight or a scene. It’s further accentuated by James Ard’s terrific sound design, with frenetic slap bass music and train sounds marking the scene changes.

Satchel Andre is full of eager enthusiasm as a neophyte challenger who faces off against Jay at the beginning of the play and soon becomes part of his retinue. Donald E. Lacy Jr. exudes weary devotion as Jay’s trainer, barking out advice in a press conference the same way he does during fights.

Tim Kniffin spends much of his time defending himself as Jay’s promoter, constantly reminding the fighter that he’s working hard for him while also making excuses for the champ’s resistance to fighting him that suggest some unexamined prejudices of his own. Kniffin fluidly shifts roles back and forth from promoter Max to a smooth ringside announcer to coldly insinuating reporters at a press conference.

Atim Udoffia is the mysterious Nina in “The Royale” at Aurora Theatre. David Allen/Aurora Theatre


Atim Udoffia is a somber presence as Nina, a mysterious woman who shows up occasionally to stare silently at Jay. She rarely appears and doesn’t speak until late in the play, by which time there’s a lot of suspense built up about who she is and what her disapproving glare portends. Because Jay is so cagey about his origins, it seems as if Nina has come to unveil some terrible secret about his past. That’s not quite what happens, but certainly her arrival changes the entire experience of his big moment.

A screenwriter and the showrunner for the recent Marvel HBO series “The Defenders” as well as a playwright, Ramirez doesn’t make a big deal about the play being a period piece. The dialogue sounds fairly contemporary without being distractingly anachronistic. Certainly there are reminders in some of the references and the way people dress, especially costumer Courtney Flores’ modest period dress for Nina.

Of course, the play is about a particular moment in history and steeped in the racial attitudes of that time, but the modern immediacy of the language doesn’t grant the viewer the luxury of distance. It’s hard to watch the play without being aware that while time has passed and attitudes may have changed, this boxer’s fight for representation is still a long way from over, more than a century later.

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