Review by Patrick Thomas, November 11, 2017
Boxing may be the oldest, most elemental of all sports: just two fighters, no equipment save for a pair of gloves, no apparatus, and takes place in one of the smallest of all "fields of play." (Interestingly, one of the other smallest fields of play is fencing, also a combat sport.) This elemental nature may explain why boxing is so compelling, even though its popularity has waned in recent decades. Compelling is also a marvelous description of Marco Ramirez' The Royale, a 90-minute, intermission-less wonder of a play, currently playing at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley.
The Royale tells the story of Jay Jackson, currently the black heavyweight champion of the world in the early 20th century, when The Royale takes place. But that's not near enough for a man as driven, passionate and single-minded as Jackson; he wants to unite the title, which is divided by race, by beating the white man currently reigning as the world heavyweight champion. Jackson is played by Calvin M. Thompson, and his performance alone should be motivation enough for you to get to Berkeley. Thompson displays an intensity and focus that is marvelous to behold. He is never less than fully present in every scene, and his character dominates the stage every moment he is on it. And that's as it should be, for his character is equally dominant—both in the ring and out of it.
It is one thing to be good at something. To excel, even. It is an altogether different sort of thing to become the singular, recognized best in the world at something. It's even more daunting when you are the first black man in America to seek that recognized top spot. But little daunts Jay Jackson. In every inch of his bearing, he exudes a confidence that swaggers, taunting his opponent in the ring, and having the courage of his conviction to let nothing dissuade him from his goal.
This bravura, though earned, blinds Jackson (who is inspired in part by Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion) to the threat of violent blowback that might be precipitated by a black man beating (in more than one sense of the word) a white man with all the world watching. Ultimately, his hubris will exact a tragic cost, but not before playwright Ramirez takes us deep into Jackson's world.
Jackson's entourage consists of trainer Wynton (a sneakily brilliant Donald E. Lacy, Jr.), promoter/manager Max (an excellent Tim Kniffin), and sparring partner Fish (Satchel André). Ramirez has created a marvelous tension between these characters, who are not always on the same side, nor of unimpeachable loyalty, yet still function well as a team.
In addition to a marvelous cast under the skilled direction of Darryl V. Jones, The Royale benefits from a wonderfully imaginative approach to creating a sense of combat on stage—without risking the safety of the actors or resorting to pulled punches or other tricks of stage combat. Here, we see the action via an almost cubist approach, in that we see two angles of the same fight simultaneously. Jackson and his opponents never face each other or physically interact. Instead, each actor performs his own moves in his own space. Not every movement feels like boxing, though. When writer Ramirez wants us to know a fighter is no longer testing his opponent with jabs and feints, and intends to make solid contact, the movements become more dance-like—while still retaining a martial quality. They put me in mind of the Maori people's hakadance, now most famously performed by the country's All Blacks rugby team to intimidate their opponents.
Scenic designer Richard Olmstead has created a mood that feels almost like a dusty touring tent, and Kurt Landisman's lighting design adds greatly to the sense of boundaries and limitations the characters on stage face.
I've tried to avoid it, but I can no longer: The Royale knocked me out. It is another marvelous production from one of the Bay Area's best theatre companies.
The Royale runs through December 3, 2017, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., with an additional matinee Saturday, November 25 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $33-$65. Tickets and additional information are available at www.auroratheatre.org or by calling 510-843-4822.