Jack Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion and the inspiration for the play “The Royale,” could pack a punch. Cleveland Play House’s production of the show explores race, representation and the ramifications of winning, with an intensity that packs just as powerful of a punch as its source of inspiration.
Kicking off the New Ground Theater Festival under the diligent direction of Robert Barry Fleming is Marco Ramirez’s Drama Desk Award-winning, one-act play “The Royale.”
Based off Johnson but renamed Jay Jackson in this show, “The Royale” follows the life of Jackson as he works his way up to fighting his white rival, the undefeated champion James J. Jeffries. Jackson needs to decide if he is willing to lose and please his sister, who is concerned for the safety of her family, or win and face the wrath of intolerant Jim Crow Era Americans.
Johnson’s story is told simply, only employing five actors to portray the boxer’s career between 1905 and 1910 and through various cities in the U.S. staged in the round, set designer Jason Ardizonne-West has placed a boxing ring center stage. Gorgeous lighting by Alan C. Edwards is a character in itself. The lighting will frame the characters in ways that translate as gritty and isolating, adding extra visual interest to the otherwise plain ring.
All of the boxing is implied, and beautifully choreographed. The fighters are often back-to-back, facing the audience rather than each other. As one jabs, the other feigns in response, as one strikes with a hook, the other jerks back. This stylized fighting is well-timed along with percussion, such as clapping and stomping, that is added by the other actors. This simplistic fighting directs attention to the star of the show: the dialogue.
Fast paced and sharp dialogue is thrown about as quickly as Jay’s punches. The script is remarkably clever, especially when Jay is fielding questions at a press release while his trainer, Wynton, shouts boxing instructions to him. The heavy weight championship match also has a remarkably interesting twist.
As Jay, Preston Butler III may not have the build of a heavyweight, but his athleticism and bold personality sells his champion nature. His struggle with the consequences of his fight is truly powerful and thought provoking.
Brian D. Coats portrays a wise and weathered Wynton while Fish, Jay’s sparing partner, is embodied by the personable Johnny Ramey. Both Coats and Ramey have their own heart-to-heart with Jay, each adding to the shows powerful commentary on the horrific state of race relations.
Another extremely likable and talented actor is Leo Marks as Max, Jay’s fight promoter. Marks uses many different interesting voices and dialects to represent different people in the audience.
Rounding out the five-member cast is Nikkole Salter as Jay’s sister Nina. Salter’s Nina is a force to be reckoned with — well characterizing the strength required of African American women during this time.
“The Royale” packs more than just a few punches. The show will strike you with such emotion, passion and intensity in such quick succession that it is safe to say that this production is a knockout.
Photo caption: From left to right: Preston Butler III (Jay), Johnny Ramey (Fish). Photo Credit Roger Mastroianni.
WHERE: Outcalt Theatre,1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through May 27
TICKETS & INFO: $25 – $110, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com