The Royale launches the Merrimack Repertory Theatre season with a gloriously theatrical punch to the gut.
The Royale by Marco Ramirez. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. Staged by the Merrimack Repertory Theatre at 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA, through October 8.
By Erik Nikander
From its very first scene, Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s The Royale thrusts us into the action and intensity of a boxing match. The black heavyweight champion of the 1910s boxing scene, Jay Jackson, squares off against Fish, a young rookie. As the fight begins, the two men face out towards the audience, each shrouded in a spotlight. Jay is lean and determined, while Fish is anxious about his odds against the champ. We gaze into their eyes, hear them say whatever frenzied thought pops into their heads. The boxers grunt and stamp the floor as they land punches, and the other cast members cry out as a sort of surrogate crowd. Light and sound and physical performance mesh together. The result might not look much like the white-hot fury of blood sport, but it’s as gripping and captivating as the real thing.
Written by Marco Ramirez, The Royale is a fictionalized retelling of the life and career of Jack Johnson, the world’s first black heavyweight champion boxer. It focuses the prizefighter’s efforts to challenge his white counterpart in an effort to decide who really deserves the title. Impressed by the spirit of his young competitor in the opening fight, Jackson (the play’s version of Johnson, played with vigor and flamboyance by Thomas Silcott) and his trainer Wynton (Jeorge Bennett Watson) hire Fish (Toran White) to join Jay’s training team. As Jackson’s white promoter Max (Mark W. Soucy) struggles to ensure that the big fight proceeds smoothly, Jay begins to doubt whether he’s truly prepared to make history.
In the play’s last stretch, Jay’s doubts increate when a character, played by Ramona Lisa Alexander, who has functioned essentially as an ensemble member up to this point, steps into the foreground and changes everything. This dramatic shift in Jay’s priorities is part of what makes The Royale so remarkable. The play works, on its most basic level, as a sports story, the tale of an athlete striving to make his mark on history. The historical context Ramirez examines hits plenty of political notes; he frames Jay’s struggle to be the champ as a strike against racist limitations on black athletes. Alexander’s character alters the play’s entire dramatic thrust, making us consider everything we’ve seen so far from a new perspective. It’s a brilliant storytelling decision, one that makes Jay’s motivation more nuanced and fascinating.
Fortunately, Ramirez’s text is supported by some fantastic MRT performances, led by Thomas Silcott as Jay. Though Silcott initially seems a tad too old to be portraying a boxer in his physical prime, he exudes such vitality and determination that these concerns melt away. Witty and robust, Silcott gives the impression that Jay has it in him to confront head-on the status quo of racial injustice embraced by white America. He’s adept at showcasing the larger-than-life persona Jay puts on before the press, but he also handles the man’s quiet, uncertain moments with conviction and honesty. Exposing not only his soul but also most of his body throughout the course of the play, Silcott proves to be a captivating physical performer, by turns tough and graceful and swaggering; during the play’s climactic fight he’s almost impossible to look away from.
The supporting players provide excellent foils to Jay. Ramona Lisa Alexander isn’t given much time to make use of her dramatic skill, but she makes the most of what she has, proffering a performance rich with pride over Jay’s accomplishments, concern for his safety, and frustration over his foolhardiness. It’s hard not to wish the character had more stage time. Mark W. Soucy’s Max is wily and sympathetic; he seems to genuinely care for Jay. Nonetheless, he is tainted by the racism of the era; Soucy manages the balance between friendship and prejudice well. Wynton, played by George Bennett Watson, isn’t given too much to do throughout most of the script, but Watson is given the opportunity to deliver an incredibly stirring monologue in the play’s final scenes. The youngest member of the cast, Toran White, provides a fresh-faced and enthusiastic performance as Fish; while his work is effective, he’s not quite as polished or refined as that of his older colleagues.
The play’s technical elements are just as exciting and confidently executed as the script and the acting. The Royale boasts a gorgeous, inventive set designed by Lawrence E. Moten III; the dangerous-looking crack running through the brick background wall brought to mind Jay’s efforts to break through societal barriers and the consequences he risked while driving change forward. Though the scenery itself is mostly static, Karen Perlow’s fluid lighting design enables the scenes to seamlessly shift from location to location and mood to mood. The sound work by David Remedios, which incorporates recorded sound effects as well as physical claps and stomps, gives the play an irresistible rhythm. Despite one or two early pacing problems, Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s direction is generally excellent at maintaining the play’s tension and ensuring that all of its elements coalesce into a cohesive artistic whole.
And that, ultimately, is what makes The Royale such a success. The play has its drawbacks (for instance, Ramona Lisa Alexander’s character feels slightly underutilized), but it nonetheless tells a deeply relevant and compelling story via an exciting use of the stage. Ramirez knows theater’s strengths as an art form, and it’s clear that MRT’s artistic team was eager to flex their creative muscles and come up with something memorable. On this count, they succeeded with aplomb. Anchored by strong performances and an opportunity to examine a fascinating moment in African-American history, The Royale launches the MRT season with a gloriously theatrical punch to the gut.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.