If baseball represents the joy of sport — its season concluding with popped champagne corks and ticker tape parades for the winners and the promise of next year for the losers — then boxing represents its tragedy, the loser lying broken and bleeding on the canvas, the winner often in not much better shape, and knowing that the day he, too, tastes defeat is coming. The metaphor extends itself to the application of America’s greatest shame, racism, to the sport.
The first African-American in major league baseball, Jackie Robinson, endured great tribulations but ended up an advisor to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and is in the baseball Hall of Fame. No one in baseball may wear his number, 42, which is retired for all teams. Things were different for Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion. He was sentenced to prison for violating the Mann Act — which prohibited taking a woman across state lines for immoral purposes — because he crossed state lines with someone before the Mann Act became law. And, after storming out of a restaurant which refused to serve him because he was Black, he died in a car crash. The ambulance took him to the nearest hospital that admitted African-Americans, but it was too late.
The Royale closes October 27, 2019. Details and tickets
The Royale, currently at Olney Theatre Center, is not a Jack Johnson bioplay, but, in broad strokes, it tells his story. It is 1910, and Jay “Sport” Jackson (Jayson Wright, suitably athletic and buff) is the Negro Heavyweight Champion. He is a fighting machine (he opens the play by knocking out a game but overmatched Fish [Clayton Pelham, Jr.] in the seventh round) but he knows that unless he defeats the iconic White heavyweight “Champ” Bixby, he will not receive the recognition he deserves. Jackson, cool to the point of arrogance, instructs his White promoter, Max (Chris Genebach) to arrange the match. Otherwise, he explains, his next promoter will.
Be careful what you ask for, Sport. Bixby, six years in retirement, is willing to take the fight, in return for an enormous cut of the purse. The former champ, who has a record of 179 wins, no losses, is no pushover despite his long layoff. But even if Sport wins, he loses; White racists, unwilling to countenance the idea of a Black champion in the violent sport they believe their own, are prepared to escalate the violence of Jackson’s and Bixby’s fists with knives and guns of their own. How many Black people will die in riots and racial pogroms if Johnson knocks Bixby out?
This is the dilemma in Marco Ramirez’ brief, pointed, uncomplicated and intelligent play. Now let’s talk about technique. The play, at bottom, is representational, as a good history play (think Henry V) should be. In the spectacular opening scene, Sport and Fish are fighting, but the actors don’t face each other. Instead, they face the audience, uttering their thoughts (“stick and move…left, left, right…you’ve got this”) as they punch the air and react to phantom blows from their opponents. In the fifth round Fish, who is in his first professional fight, manages to break through Sport’s defenses and land a powerful blow; in reaction, Wright shows not only that Sport is hurt but that he is surprised; nothing in his previous seventy-eight fights (all wins) prepared him for this.
The coordination between fighters is both intense and impeccable, a tribute to the hard work and skill of director/choreographer Paige Hernandez and fight director Clifford Williams III. Boxing is both brutal and balletic, as anyone who saw the Fury-Wilder fight last December knows. Hernandez, Williams and the actors collaborate to illustrate the point beautifully, mostly in slo-mo and without actually landing a blow.
You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t named the actor who plays Bixby. That’s because there isn’t one. Sport’s most formidable enemy isn’t the former champ. It’s the toxic, racist society in which he lives, which is so disoriented by the idea of a Black man succeeding that Sport’s wins are accompanied by murders, lynching and riots. So when Sport gets into the ring for the fight of his life it is not Bixby who climbs onto the other side but Sport’s sister Nina (a spot-on Lolita Marie), who reminds him that by succeeding, Sport endangers not only his own life but the life of his family and of all African-Americans. Sport knows it, too; he is cannily vague about his origins when talking to reporters, for fear that someone might find his family and do its members harm. And at that moment, strangely enough, our minds wander not to boxing but to others who have taken outsized risks to bring truth to power — whistleblowers, perhaps, or the protesters in Hong Kong.
The Royale invokes its distance from the present day through style and ritual. The cast claps to announce the passage of time; Sport, without much provocation, sings the old Son House song “Don’t You Mind People Grinning in Your Face”; and, as I said earlier, fighters punch the air. Genebach, as Max the promoter, moderates a press conference, and then runs into various spots in the audience to shout out questions. The cast — including Jay Frisby, a last-minute replacement as Wynton, Sport’s manager — is so good that none of these devices disturb the fictive dream.
That the play, like the real fight, was set one hundred nine years ago may lull you into thinking of it as a museum piece. Don’t be fooled. The disease has not left, it’s just changed seats. We now accept African-Americans as athletes. But when one was elected President of the United States eleven years ago, we had convulsions similar to the ones seen in the play. Respected politicians wrote crude jokes and sent offensive cartoons to each other; the execrable Dylann Roof assassinated nine people while they were at prayer, in order to start a race war. Some morons even claimed that the President was born in Africa and thus ineligible for office under the Constitution! The problem hasn’t changed, just the territory in which it manifests itself.
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Incidentally, if you’re interested in the real fight upon which The Royale is based: Jack Johnson became heavyweight champion of the world by beating Tommy Burns, a Canadian, in a fight in Australia. Instead of the accolades he expected for bringing the crown back to America, his countrymen bathed him in a tarry hatred.
Johnson sawed through a bevy of white challengers until undefeated former champ Jeffries was coaxed out of retirement to take him on. Jeffries was “the great white hope”; the fight was memorialized by the play and movie of the same name. The battle won enormous attention. The arena which housed it was built specifically for the fight. Thirty thousand people came to Reno, Nevada by train to see it. Promoter Tex Rickard refereed the fight himself, after first offering the job to William Howard Taft, President of the United States, and to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes (both refused). Jeffries was a great fighter in his day, but he was thirty-five years old, and had to lose a hundred pounds to get into shape. On the day of the fight — July 4, 1910 — the temperature in Reno was 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The first seven or so rounds were close, but Johnson, who was primarily a defensive fighter and a counterpuncher, wore Jeffries down, and in the fifteenth round (of a scheduled 45!) the former champ’s corner threw in the towel. You can see some clips from the fight here. Murders, lynchings and riots ensued.
The Royale by Marco Ramirez, directed and choreographed by Paige Hernandez . Featuring Chris Genebach, Lolita Marie, Clayton Pelham, Jr., Jay Frisby and Jaysen Wright . Scenic and costume design: Debra Kim Sivigny . Lighting design: Sarah Tundermann . Sound design: Kenny Neal . Production design: KJelly Colburn . Fight choreographer: Cliff Williams III . Hair and makeup consultant: Ali Pohanka . Director of production: Jasiane M. Jones . Stage Manager: Jessica Short . Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.