TheatreSquared presented a brilliant and hauntingly beautiful tribute to the late boxing legend Jack Johnson with its take on the award-winning play “The Royale.”
“The Royale,” written by Marco Ramirez, is a New York Times Critics’ Pick and winner of multiple Clive Barnes and Obie Awards. The play tells the story of Jay Jackson, a fictionalized version of Johnson, the first black world heavyweight boxing champion.
“The Royale” follows Jackson, the black world heavyweight champion, as he strives to overcome the challenges of segregated boxing and become the best in the world in the early 1900s. As he goes up against the world champion of the time, a white man, in “the fight of the century,” he discovers that breaking the status quo can have dire consequences.
TheatreSquared’s take on Ramirez’s play is performed entirely in a boxing ring, set over the course of two fights, a press conference and several practice spars between Jackson and his training partner Fish. The set design, consisting of the ring, a few stools and a changeable backdrop, is simple yet effective, giving the West Theatre a more intimate atmosphere and allowing the audience to imagine they were attending a heavyweight boxing match.
Despite occasional opening night stumbles from Vincent Teninty, playing fight promoter Max, and C. Anthony Jackson, playing boxing coach Wynton, “The Royale” was overall well-acted.
In particular, Na’Tosha De’Von shone as Jackson’s sister, Nina, who visits her brother before his life-changing fight, terrified that his winning will mean persecution and terrorization for black people across the country. Her surprise appearance in the final scene of the play, during Jackson’s fight, will bring even the most stoic theater-goers to tears.
Shon Middlebrooks was exceptional as Jackson, the star of the show. He brought a delightful blend of energy, charm, humor and devastating, heart-wrenching emotionality to the role. “The Royale” serves as Middlebrook’s TheatreSquared debut, but I hope to see him in future productions. Middlebrooks is certainly an actor to watch.
Director Dexter J. Singleton, choreographer Michelle LeBlanc and boxing consultant Kevin Lightburn deserve recognition for the surprising artistic choices they made, particularly with regard to how they staged the fight scenes. Rather than making contact with one another, the contestants in the onstage fights stand on opposite sides of the ring, facing the audience. Punches, jabs and knockouts are represented by lunging, stomping and stumbling.
This choreography serves both an artistic and practical purpose, allowing the audience and actors to feel more connected to one another and eliminating the need for the performers to perfect complicated stage fighting techniques.
In general, “The Royale” at TheatreSquared is a highly engaging play, featuring some moments where the actors actively encourage audience participation and others where they step off the stage to join the audience themselves. These elements help to keep viewers’ attention throughout the 85-minute play, which runs without intermission, and are just plain fun.
As fun as it is, “The Royale” is also incredibly somber and meaningful. While there are ample moments of humor, the subject matter is heavy. The conclusion in particular is extremely emotionally fraught and intense.
To say the play is moving would be an understatement. The production seems to be a fitting tribute to Johnson, a trailblazer who inspired many black athletes who came after him.
With simple but engaging design, a strong cast that skillfully tackles a difficult story and a powerful twist ending, “The Royale” is a Black History Month must-see for theater lovers, historical fiction buffs and average citizens alike.
“The Royale” runs through Feb. 16 at TheatreSquared on Spring Street. Tickets start at $18. There are 30 tickets reserved for $10 for each show for students or people under 30.