Marco Ramirez’s The Royale is set in 1905, deep in the midst of the Jim Crow laws. It is a play that makes profound statements about belonging, identity and power in a deeply racialised society. It follows a black boxer by the name of Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Khris Davis), who wants to take on the ultimate defending champion who has recently retired. The battle begins long before the first bell however, as the white champion initially refuses to recognise Jackson as a worthy opponent. It also causes a rupture in his relationship with his sister Nina (Tony-nominated Montego Glover), who is anxious about what a victory for Jackson might mean for their personal safety.
Director Rachel Chavkin keeps all the action within a very small amount of space, adding to the almost claustrophobic atmosphere and driving the tension that builds and runs throughout the entire play. Yet The Royale is not a drama boiling over at every turn. Instead it is quieter, and patient for such a relatively short play. Diving deep into the minds of the main characters, it uses their personal struggles to put together an intricate story of the place of black men and women in a country heavily skewed in favour of white people.
Even when not fighting, Jackson is having boxing instructions shouted to him by his trainer Wynton (Clarke Peters delivers a weighted, powerful performance). You get the unmistakable impression that boxing is not just a sport or livelihood, but the means by which Jackson’s very existence is validated and supported by a society otherwise deeply entrenched against him. The way that Chavkin captures Jackson’s situation and how boxing is as much his anchor as it is the problem is intoxicating, a story that speaks volumes about its contemporary relevance without ever feeling the need to shout.
Chakvin is far more interested in the psychological battles of boxing as opposed to the physical toll. The fights are abstracted, bathed in a dark lighting and making use of revolving pieces of set. Despite the stylisation, with the stomping of feet and banging the set, it feels more genuine than pretend fisty-cuffs. And Davis brings Jackson’s inner turmoil to life with searing realism, the dilemma he faces coming to the fore during a heated confrontation with Nina – an equally impressive Glover, who makes up for her lacking stage time with a memorable, powerful performance where she seems to see right through her otherwise self-confident brother.
This particular production of The Royale, filmed in 2016 at the Lincoln Center Theater, is captured with just three cameras and across just one performance. It does wonders for capturing the intensity in a way that transports you directly into the theatre, although it doesn’t always work optimally given the three-sided staging arrangement. A scene with Jackson attacking a punching bag, while presented with great style, nonetheless feels a bit aimless, breaking up the story unnecessarily. Aside from these minor points, The Royale is a brilliantly executed portrayal of race relations, sport and belonging in 1900s USA, featuring a stellar cast and direction that so perfectly understands how a story like this needs to be told.
Words by James Hanton.
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