Review by Holli Harms
15 March 2016
Director Rachel Chavkin has set the pace for Marco Ramirez’s play, The Royale, with claps and stomps, creating visceral partners between words and movement and making us the play's sparring partner. Her brilliant staging, mustered with Ramirez’s story and the flowing connected ensemble of this marvelous cast is like watching a jazz band riff off of each other. They are flying and we get to fly with them. Lighting by Austin R. Smith and set by Nick Vaughan are bare and bright and alive. The entire theater is surrounded by lights that enhance each punch, each blow, so that we are part of the beating heart that is The Royale.
The play opens with a boxing match, the champ, Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Khris Davis), against the novice, Fish (McKinley Belcher III). It is a fist fight, hand to hand, human to human, and you feel the blows and punches, but neither actor ever makes contact with the other. The staging of the match is phenomenal, stark, symbolic and poetic.
The play is based loosely on the Johnson-Jeffries fight, known as the “Fight of the Century” in 1910. The great black fighter Jack Johnson coaxed James Jeffries, the undisputed white heavyweight champ of the world, out of retirement to fight him. Johnson beat Jeffries fair and square making him the Champ and causing riots and lynchings in cities across the U.S. That win for a man of color was a roundhouse that turned the country topsy-turvy. The story playing out at The Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center conjures that chaos but it also conjures the inner turmoil of the “character” of Jay Jackson. He is not fighting with just the flesh of his fists, but fighting with himself, with a part of his past he can never let go, and with a time where the color of his skin was a sin to be feared.
“A boxer’s victory is gained in blood” and all of it not necessarily his own or his opponent’s.
Go! Get a ticket! Run to The Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center! Don’t wait until it’s too late!
"Marco Ramirez’s absorbing drama about a black prizefighter in the early 20th century... That this production never deploys real physical blows in recreating life in the ring is by no means to say that it doesn’t pack a punch."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"The terrific performances and the striking, stylized staging deliver one-two punches."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Ramirez (benefiting from director Rachel Chavkin’s innate musicality) deftly sketches his version of Johnson in Jay, endowed with tremendous grace and charm by Khris Davis."
David Cote for Time Out New York
"The actors' strong efforts, and all the foot stomping in the world, aren't enough to make the play feel anything other than pedestrian."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"A riveting play by Marco Ramirez, getting a hell of a workout Off Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater."
Frank Rizzo for Variety
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