“The Royale,” a one-act drama, is inspired by boxer Jack Johnson
Sometimes the simple, the spare, can stun. Playwright Marco Ramirez seems to know this. So does Boulder’s Butterfly Effect Theatre Company, which opened “The Royale,” a terrific production of the writer and TV showrunner’s one-act drama inspired by the story of boxer Jack Johnson.
In 1910, Johnson became the first Black world heavyweight boxing champion when he bested white pugilist James Jeffries in a Fourth of July bout touted as “the fight of the century.”
“The Royale” is set in the year of that historic match. Negro Heavyweight Champion Jay Jackson (Lavour Addison) wants his fight promoter Max (Augie Truhn) to secure a bout with Bixby, the recently retired world heavyweight champion. But the play begins with a different fight, one between the champ and an outmatched amateur named Fish (Cameron Davis).
The boxers face the audience. Their taunts to each other (but also their internal monologues) fill the expanse. Each, in his own way, provides a running commentary. “Hey, Kid, how many rounds you want?” Jay prods Fish. “Watch out for that hook,” Fish thinks out loud. “You see him fight, you know that,” trainer Wynton (Chris Davenport), in Jay’s corner, calls out.
The dialogue is fleet, even funny. For a spell, Fish holds his own. He has a hunger, but not a chance. Between more rounds than Jay expected the kid to last, it becomes clear that someone important is watching from the front row. This is an audition more than a bout; Bixby’s people have come to watch.
Set on being the best — period — Jay’s not going to take “no” for an answer, and when Max comes back with the Bixby team’s deeply unfavorable terms — a 90-10 split — he takes it. Clearly, the contest means more than money. But what, exactly?
After the bout, Wynton invites Fish to talk. Soon, Jay has a new sparring partner. And the play keeps the younger, sweet boxer around for reasons that illuminate and rend. Fish and Jay have a relationship different than those the champ has with longtime cornerman Wynton or white promoter Max. And watching actors Addison and Davis explore that mentorship as Jay heads toward the big fight offers one of the play’s more poignant (and vulnerable) pleasures. What does the fight mean to this — and other — Black men and boys?
Like “Small Ball,” another show that opened over the weekend, “The Royale,” makes pointed use of the press conference. And while he’s good at dodging opponents’ jabs, Jackson proves deft at bobbing and weaving in the face of a barrage of questions meant to throw him off his game: questions about “Negro” aggression, about his upbringing, about why exactly he wants to step into the ring with Bixby.
The fight choreography is gorgeous, even though no punches connect. A thump on a chest or stomp on the canvas signals a dazing blow, a blinding jab. It’s the stuff of the sweet science beautifully rendered. It’s a sign, too, that the playwright and director accept that they needn’t complete with the cinematic tricks and splatter of, say, a “Raging Bull,” but can offer their own grim and vivid grace to a boxing-ring drama.
Like a dance performance, Addison’s muscular work in particular reminds audiences simultaneously of the vigorous demands and deceptive ease of acting. But the fighting isn’t the play’s only dance. Director Jada Suzanne Dixon teases the ways motion and stillness tangle — and tango. While Jay spars with the press, Wynton and Fish pantomime practicing in the background. As Jay shadowboxes and speaks to the audience, a mute chorus composed of Max, Wynton, Fish and an unidentified woman stand in witness, still as pillars.
Before the championship match, that woman will make her presence and meaning known when Nina arrives prior to the fight to talk Jay out of it. Alicia “Lisa” Young’s performance brims with an ache and hope at odds with Jay’s own ambitions. While Wynton and Max have done their best to shield Jay from threats of racist violence, she does no such thing. The stakes are high, she insists, and not just for Jay. (The night after Johnson defeated Jeffries in 1910, race riots took place in 25 states, including in Colorado.)
After Nina departs, Wynton recounts his own boxing history to Jay. His memories make the underground bouts in “Fight Club” seems gentile. Freighted as they are with racist underpinnings of a blood sport, his recollections also add another facet to the rich, grappling, competing complexities of “The Royale.”
From the very first moment, when a heavy bag ascends into the rafters like a microphone right before two contenders go at it, “The Royale” doesn’t miss a beat. Tina Anderson’s set, with its half ring, is evocative like a fine sketch. Emily Maddox’s lighting design and CeCe Smith’s sound design add depth and edge. From the costumes (by Sarah Zinn) to the props (Kati Hopwood), the production’s every gesture, like its heavyweight contender, comes at us with purpose.
In thinking about the show’s spare and powerful elegance, it’s tempting to borrow a signature phrase from Muhammad Ali. While the poetic language of “The Royale” floats, the meaning of the action more than stings. It bruises.
IF YOU GO
“The Royale”: Written by Marco Ramirez. Directed by Jada Suzanne Dixon. Featuring Lavour Addison, Cameron Davis, Chris Davenport, Alicia “Lisa” Young and Augie Truhn. Through Nov. 19 at the Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. thedairy.org or betc.org.
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