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REVIEW: The Royale Knockout (Yellow Tree Theatre)

Santino Craven and David Murray in Yellow Tree Theatre’s production of The Royale. Photo by Justin Cox.

“BAM”, “POW”, “KAPOW” – A Knockout

Bam goes the fist. Pow – another punch and someone’s seeing double. Kapow – the countdown is on and the play begins.

Such is the flow of The Royale, an experiential telling of the match that made Jack Johnson the first African-American Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World. Johnson is an interesting figure; his tale has been dramatized before, most notably in both the play and movie entitled A Great White Hope. In The Royale, playwright Marco Ramirez story of how Johnson becomes champion focuses on the racial backlash that springs from his ascendancy in the boxing world. The downside is that the play yields minimal insight into Johnson himself. Director Austene Van’s production uses the play’s 75-minutes to blend the feel of a boxing match with an urge to strike out against racial injustice.

Tamala Lacy and David Murray in The Royale. Photo by Justin Cox.

In Ramirez’s play, boxer Jay “The Sport” Jackson is an analogue for the real-life Jack Johnson. As the curtain rises, Jackson is at the top of the African-American boxing world, but his eyes are set on the (to this point white-only) title of Heavyweight Champion of the World. In his way is retired champion Bernard Bixby, who Jackson needs to come out of retirement to fight a championship bout against him. Bixby is reluctant, especially to fight an African-American, and audaciously demands 90% of the prize money, win or lose. Jackson is so eager that he accepts.

During the course of this play, we learn little of Jackson the man besides his reckless drive to be champion. The only insight to his past comes from his sister Nina, who once injured herself with an iron when she tried to emulate white models’ hair – something Jay Jackson never forgot. Nina’s caution is in contrast to her brother’s recklessness: she fears that Jackson’s championship fight will create a violent backlash against the African-American community and cautions him not to win.

Since the play offers minimal character development, Van focuses on the conflict between fighting against racial injustice versus the relative safety of the second-class status quo. It echoes a similar conflict that occurred decades later among leaders of the African-American black community when the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) directly challenged school desegregation despite leading Africa-American voices who feared the case could set back previous gains in desegregation. The play literally sounds beats between the opposing viewpoints as things build to their ultimate conclusion.

David Murray plays a cocky, reckless, and charming Jackson who is driven to succeed. James Craven is a seasoned trainer whose personality is large and is equally driven to back a winner. Santino Craven plays the loyal sparring partner who sees Jackson as carrying out his dream of a world championship. Charles Fraser plays Jackson’s white manager with great bluster but is determined to get Jackson the white man’s champion title. Tamala Lacy, as Nina, is a latecomer to the play, but she interjects an impassioned plea for the dangers to other African-Americans if her brother succeeds with his dream.

David Murray as Jackson in The Royale. Photo by Justin Cox.

The play’s driving beat begins with the opening fight between Jackson and his (eventual) sparring partner, and ends with the champion bout. The show boasts incredible movement work as the fighters are side by side, but never come to direct blows; one fighter jabs while the other fighter simultaneously flinches, selling the illusion of contact. All this occurs to the driving pulse of Aaron Newman’s sound design. The intimate, minimal set, and the lighting all pull the audience into the bout, leaving the audience emotionally depleted as the final blow is struck.

The Royale plays at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo, MN through March 4.

Bev Wolfe