Although it’s over 100 years since the first African-American boxer, Jack Johnson, won the world heavyweight boxing championship in a fight with James L. Jeffries, the white retired champion, the repercussions continue to be heard. The race riots, injuries and deaths that followed Jack Johnson’s stunning victory so many years ago seem sadly analogous to today’s racially motivated injustices.
In the stirring Bay Area premiere of The Royale by award-winning TV writer and producer Marco Ramirez (Orange Is the New Black, Sons of Anarchy), Johnson is called Jay Jackson, but otherwise he is the same young and innocently overconfident athlete celebrity, out to prove himself and his race equal to or better than white Americans, including his adversary (named Bixby in The Royale). There is also a more personal reason for Jay Jackson’s quest, one, albeit a bit forced, that harks back to his childhood and his sister, Nina.
The focus of the 90-minute production is on the stimuli, rationale and emotions that drive Jackson to succeed, as well as the internal conflicts that intimidate him. Jackson is stalked by gun-toting white men as he travels throughout the country, which he handles more easily than the feared repercussions to his sister’s family and the African-American community if he were to win the championship bout.
The Royale is not a typical boxing drama. In fact, no punches actually connect. Darryl V. Jones, in his directorial debut at the Aurora, skillfully conducts the clever and subtle staging in which, during the boxing scenes, each fighter stands separately on the stage, facing away from each other. The fighters stomp when a punch is supposed to have connected (tremendous co-choreography by Darryl V. Jones and Joe Orrach).
In addition to Jackson (first-rate Calvin M. Thompson), the excellent cast consists of Jay’s supportive trainer, Wynton (Donald E. Lacy, Jr.), his white manager and promoter, Max (Tim Kniffin), who can’t escape his ingrained prejudices, his naïve sparring partner Fish, (Satchel André) and his doleful sister Nina (Atim Udoffia). Donald E. Lacey, Jr. delivers a standout monologue describing his first terrifying experience of brawling for cash, from which the title of the drama is taken.
Johnson’s life was the basis for Howard Sackler’s brilliant The Great White Hope, the 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning play and 1970 movie starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, as well as a 2005 Ken Burns PBS television documentary (Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson). It took courage for playwright Ramirez to attempt a fresh look at the Jack Johnson story. Perhaps he possesses the famed boxer’s mettle. His electrifying drama, which already completed successful runs in Los Angeles, Chicago, London and New York, has proved him right.
The Royale runs at the Aurora Theatre Company through Dec. 3. For information, extended performance dates and tickets, visit the Aurora’s website.