April 27, 2016

"The Royale" Sits on an Uneasy Throne

Nearly all my theatergoing friends have been asking me if I've seen, and what I think about, The Royale, which has been running at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse theater for the last seven weeks. And then, without waiting for me to answer, each of my inquisitors has told me how knocked out they were by the show. 

And maybe that's why it's taken so long for me to write about it here. Because while I admire a lot about The Royale, I'm also uneasy with some of what the play seems to be saying.

The Royale is a fantasized retelling of the life of Jack Johnson, the first black boxing champion whose struggle to be respected in the first decades of the 20th century also inspired The Great White Hope, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1969 and made a star of James Earl Jones.

Undaunted by all of that, playwright Marco Ramirez has taken on the pivotal part of the story in which the up-and-coming boxer, here called Jay, attempts to get the retired title holder into the ring with him so that the black boxer can prove to all doubters that he's the best fighter in the world.

Along the way he has to battle racism from whites who resent the idea of a black man laying hands on a white one and fear from African Americans who worry that they will suffer repercussions if Jay triumphs over a white opponent.

Even Jack's beloved sister Nina begs him not to fight a white man. And since Nina is played by the talented actress Montego Glover, those scenes are among the most effective in the play (click here to read an interview with the actress).

That's what caused the problem for me. I don't doubt that there were African Americans who feared the negative consequences of a Jack Johnson victory. Indeed, there really were riots in which angry white mobs attacked and lynched black people after he won the heavyweight title. But The Royale's staging suggests that Jay's greatest enemy is his own people.

And what the play doesn't show is the great pride that many African Americans took from seeing one of their own not only stand up to a white man but beat him down as so often had happened to them.

My friend Joy says it doesn't matter because the play shows Jay going through with the fight and—spoiler alert on a 100-year old event—winning. And there's no quarreling with the visceral pleasures of the production itself. The five-member cast, lead by Khris Davis' performance as Jay, is uniformly excellent. 

Meanwhile, director Rachel Chavkin has created an inventive production that imagines the audience as spectators at a boxing event with stylized fights and training sessions that pack a punch even though the actors don't actually exchange blows (click here to read more about the staging).

And yet I remain unsettled. You don't take on a subject like this unless you have something to say and although they wrestle with the nuances of race and class that still resonate today, Ramirez and Chavkin end up in a place that raises dubious questions about the cost of fighting for black dignity. 

Luckily for all of us, there were folks from the real Jack Johnson straight through to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X who firmly believed that no price is too high.

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