The Royale

October 5, 2017

in Plays

Play (2013)
by Marco Ramirez

Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian

Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Lowell, MA
September 13 – October 8, 2017

With Thomas Silcott (Jay), Ramona Lisa Alexander (Nina), Mark W. Soucy (Max), Jeorge Bennett Watson (Wynton), Toran White (Fish)

Jack Johnson fighting James J. Jeffries in 1910

James J. Jeffries and Jack Johnson in 1910

A superlative production of an interestingly crafted play inspired by the career of famed early twentieth century African-American boxer Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson (1878-1946), who had already earned the title of World Colored Heavyweight Champion, became in 1908 the first African-American prizefighter to win the World Heavyweight title against a white man. Johnson held that title for the next eight years. In 1910, Johnson and his backers lured former undefeated World Heavyweight Champion James J. Jeffries, a white man, out of retirement to fight Johnson, and was paid a huge sum of money to do so. The encounter was deemed the fight of the century; Johnson prevailed.

The narrative of The Royale is inspired by the Johnson-Jeffries faceoff. The names are different – Jay Jackson instead of Jack Johnson – but the idea is the same.

The years are somewhere between 1905 and 1910 and a black prizefight star has yet to challenge a reigning white champion. Jay (Thomas Silcott) is such a star and feels he can take on that champion of the era, Chet Bixby, but it takes an awful lot of convincing of the white promoter with whom he has worked in black only fights, Max (Mark W. Soucy), to try to break the black-white barrier. As well, Jay’s sister, Nina (Ramona Lisa Alexander), steps in to oppose the idea, arguing that a lot of black lives will be lost to lynchings out of the pure white rage of resentment if Jackson wins.

Toran White as Fish, Mark W. Soucy as Max, Thomas Silcott as Jay in 'The Royale'

Toran White as Fish
Mark W. Soucy as Max
Thomas Silcott as Jay
in “The Royale”
Photo: Meghan Moore
Courtesy of Merrimack Repertory Theatre

This wonderfully taut and highly crafted script, yielding only eighty uninterrupted minutes on stage, has been given a truly superlative directorial effort by Megan Sandberg-Zakian who had supervised the Merrimack’s superb It’s a Wonderful Life and Central Square’s incredible The Convert. Sandberg-Zakian has given her talented group of actors all the means possible to render a convincing performance. Claps, shouts, elegant choreographic design, and a sparely intense delivery of character result in a highly punctuated, interesting and stimulating production.

To enhance the overall effect, fight choreographer Kyle Vincent Terry has amplified the stage directions to create a viscerally effective scheme for conveying the fight sequences by having the two fighters face the audience rather than each other. It’s a great technique and suggestively gives a convincing portrayal of the battles without having to simulate them more realistically. There is something very Noh Theatre about it – suggestively Japanese, abstract, far more interesting than typical realistic methods might allow.

The entre’acte music by David Remedios is also vivifying – a robust blend of cello and string improvisations which gives a passionate underlining to the equally passionate goings-on onstage.

The actors all play significant roles and do a wonderful job.

Ramona Lisa Alexander as Nina, Thomas Silcott as Jay in 'The Royale'

Ramona Lisa Alexander as Nina
Thomas Silcott as Jay
in “The Royale”
Photo: Meghan Moore
Courtesy of Merrimack Repertory Theatre

Heading up the list is Thomas Silcott as Jay, a wiry and intense middle-aged guy who brings a great deal of the fighter to his portrayal, determined, sassy, intense, reminiscent of Muhammed Ali in many ways. He provides the riveting undercurrent of all that happens.

As Max, the promoter, Mark W. Soucy is patter-mouthed in the best sense, fast talking, energetic and driven, both a backer and a foil for Jay.

As Jay’s coach and trainer, Wynton, Jeorge Bennett Watson, is compellingly supportive until he has a visceral soliloquy in which he evokes the significance of a fight at The Royale which provides the metaphoric emblem for the challenges that Jay faces.

And as Fish, the young opponent and then sparring partner, Toran White yields a heartfelt, sincere and poignant performance.

Finally, Ramona Lisa Alexander, as Nina, Jay’s sister, interlocutor, and ultimate opponent, sits on the side until she does everything but that. It’s a dramatic turnaround and gives the final third of the play its gusto.

Crisp, tuned, efficient and brilliantly directed, this production of a very interesting play delivers its considerable punch effectively and powerfully.

– BADMan

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