Black early 20th-century celebrity heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson has had as irresistible a pull on subsequent playwrights and filmmakers as he did on the public of his day. Already the subject of a hit biographical play and movie, Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope (James Earl Jones’ breakthrough role when the play opened at DC’s Arena Stage in 1967) and a Ken Burns documentary, Johnson is now the inspiration for Marco Ramirez’s 2013 The Royale at the Olney Theatre Center.
Sackler’s fictionalized biographical piece, he said, was focused on a man pitted against society, a struggle between the man and the outside world, rather than specifically on the racism of the society in which he lived. The Royale, by contrast, is explicitly not a biographical piece. Ramirez sees in the story of its Johnson-like character, Jay Jackson (a perfectly cast Jaysen Wright), a metaphor for a narrative repeated in the lives of prominent Black athletes and entertainers up through the present day.
Metaphor though Jay may be, Wright’s portrayal is anything but one-dimensional. At the beginning, if he doesn’t exactly float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, he’s light on his feet, quick with his words, full of the justified cheerful cockiness of a star athlete at the top of his game. He wants to be known as the best. He feels the “music” of fighting in the ring. As the play goes on, and the effects of racism on him and those around him become more oppressive, he slows down and feels greater self-doubt, his introspection leading at times to ambivalence and a kind of emotional inertia. It’s a non-traditional direction for a character arc, which Wright plays with commendable subtlety, as well as with physicality that makes Jackson fully credible as a professional boxer.
Under the direction of Paige Hernandez, the rest of the ensemble matches Wright’s excellence. The play’s title comes from “battle royales,” in which groups of Black men were blindfolded and set to beat each other bloody while the audience cheered, bet on their favorites, and allowed the last man standing to scramble for coins they had scattered on the ground (a powerful metaphor in itself). As Jay’s manager, Wynton, Jay Frisby has one of the finest moments of the evening in a monologue that describes that humiliating spectacle.
The other members of Jay’s team are his supportive, youthfully sweet, sparring partner Fish (Clayton Pelham, Jr.) and his white promoter, Max (Chris Genebach). Max is a piece of work: he works hard for his client, is very focused on money, and prides himself on being the country’s only interracial fight promoter, yet at the same time as he shares his culture’s racial biases. Max is a loud, fast-talking sort; Genebach has a memorable moment when he simultaneously plays not only Max at his most promotional but all the reporters at a press conference.
The plot of The Royale concerns Jay’s determination to cement public recognition as champion by fighting retired white champion Bixby (suggested by James Jeffries, who Johnson defeated in such a bout in 1910). There is little suspense about how the actual match will turn out. The tension is all interior, as Jay responds to strongly mixed messages from his sister Nina (Lolita Marie). Strong and supportive, scarred and realistically frightened by racism, Nina presses Jay to consider the probable effects of a victory: more racial violence as whites take out their rage over his defeat of a white man on Black people. As Hernandez’s staging makes clear near the end of the show, in Jay’s soul Nina is a more formidable adversary than any man in the ring with him. She is, at the same time, at the root of his drive to succeed. Marie’s playing of the duality of her character, and its effect on Jay, is one of the show’s strongest points.
The production is a highly stylized one, featuring repeated (perhaps too frequently repeated) rhythmic hand clapping by the cast; loud percussive booms in Kenny Neal’s precise sound design when a punch lands; and slow-motion shadowboxing – with the boxers facing the audience, rather than each other – representing the swings the boxers take. Debra Kim Sivigny’s thrust stage, appropriately enough, takes the form of a boxing ring. Hernandez’s blocking also makes good use of the apron area in front of the ring and the aisles at several points. Kelly Colburn’s projections, notably moving silhouettes representing the crowds at Jay’s fights, add significantly to the atmosphere.
The script includes one rather glaring anachronism, as Fish goes to a bar to listen to a broadcast of the title fight. News traveled fast in 1910, through telegraph and newspapers, but the first radio broadcast of a boxing match did not occur until 1921.
At times, Ramirez seems to make Jay strangely naïve about the racism he confronts. Jay himself dealt with a traumatic incident of the effects of racism as a child, and white on Black violence was an everyday reality during the Jim Crow era, not only in the South. White men bringing guns to a public space with mayhem in mind would not have seemed terribly surprising. (Alas, it does not seem surprising today either.)
And why, one might ask Nina, should a Black man be made to feel responsible for the racially-motivated crimes of white men? In the early decades of the 20th century, it didn’t take an athletic victory by a Black man to trigger deadly anti-Black violence. True enough, as Olney’s always-excellent dramaturgical material points out, when Jack Johnson defeated James Jeffries in 1910, ensuing attacks around the country resulted in a reported 11-26 deaths, mostly of Black people. But that same year there were a documented 67 lynchings of Black people throughout the country, for any reason or no reason. Not long after, there was a wave of post-World-War I “race riots,” most notoriously the Tulsa pogrom of 1921 that destroyed the prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood and cost an estimated 100-300 Black lives. Should the Black business people of Greenwood somehow have felt responsible, as if their success brought on the destruction of their community?
In his program note, Olney Artistic Director Jason Loewith comments that “Unlike their white counterparts, successful black athletes (whether they want to or not) become symbols, their stories serve as stand-ins for contemporary racial politics.” It’s a fair point, one the play makes effectively. It may be, however, that Jay Jackson as symbol is less interesting than Jack Johnson in history.
Running Time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.
Sarah Tundermann, Lighting Designer; Cliff Williams III, Fight Choreographer