The Royale, by Marco Ramirez. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. Fight Choreography by Kyle Vincent Terry.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Mark W. Soucy, Thomas Silcott, Jeorge Bennett Watson; photo: Douglas C. Liebig
"I seen a man fight with less."
Ramona L. Alexander, Thomas Silcott; photo: Douglas C. Liebig
Rarely has a play, a new play for me, appealed to me less than this one did. "Another play about the boxer Jack Johnson?" I thought. "What's wrong with The Great White Hope?" Then the Rep produced Marco Ramirez's play "The Royale" and after an intense, poetic 84 minutes in that world I couldn't stop myself from wishing I could see it every night. This cast in this play on this stage present a unique and extraordinary experience. A cast of five actors play six characters and represent a world of humanity with needs, goals, drives, desires and relationships that astound. That is truly the word for this play: ASTOUND. I have to say that there is nothing else like it.
The story of the first World Heavyweight Champion of color, called in this play Jay Jackson, has been turned on its psychological ear. It is no longer an ego piece, a play about racial interaction, it is instead a play about family, about union and about discord. Jay has a major career behind him and a support team that is magnificent. He is so gracious in his life that even a major young contender is wooed over to Jay's world which ultimately ends in personal tragedy, a moment so tender and so frightening that I was startled when it occurred.
More than anything, it is a play about the love of a sister and a brother who cannot handle the differences in their lives. Jay's sister Nina is played by the amazing Ramona L. Alexander who is on stage often, but only has two actual scenes to play. The first one deals with the modified impact that family ties can have on the career of a man bent on total success in a world not of his own making. Alexander is sweet, tender and bitter during this scene and she grabs the mind and heart of both Jay and the audience.
Her second scene, in which she plays two characters simultaneously - a phenomenal piece of writing, directing and acting - has, moment to moment, the potential to crash and burn taking the play down, but once again Alexander and Thomas Silcott as Jay, elevate the 15 rounds of boxing to outrageous and exhausting heights. Here, director Megan Sandberg-Zakian and fight choreographer Kyle Vincent Terry perform the miracle of staging that keeps us deep and close within the boxing match and the family disagreement simultaneously. It is an amazing eight or nine minutes that I will never forget.
Shining lights throughout the play are Mark W. Soucy as Max, the boxing manager and Jeorge Bennett Watson as Wynton, Jay's trainer. Watson is a fabulous presence. At every entrance he pulls focus for you know when he speaks it will have impact and power. Wynton has deep feelings for Jay and they always remain just a hair below the surface of each dialogue they have. Watson brings more than the usual emotional depth to this sort of character, almost a father figure but not quite a father.
Mark Soucy's manager is another aspect of the devotion that one man can have for another. Max sees the outstanding potential Jay brings to both their careers, even with the sacrifice of major money in the first historic battle of champions, a white against a black. Soucy plays this character without the usual rancor of greed in the foreground. Instead he, like Wynton, assumes the garb of pseudo-dad, and brings the emotion of devotion into the work.
They are joined by Jonathan Louis Dent as Fish, a young boxer who sacrifices his own career for Jay's outrageous hopes. Dent's work is beautiful; anger and hostility morphing into hero-worship and anticipation. Fish ultimately wants nothing more than Jay's absolute supremacy and he pays the ultimate price for being such an ardent fan. Dent, like Alexander and Soucy and Watson, adds emotional strength to this play.
Thomas Silcott, Jonathan Louis Dent; photo: Douglas C. Liebig
Thomas Silcott; photo: Douglas C. Liebig
It is rare that a play about one person becomes a true ensemble piece, but that is what occurs in this production of "The Royale." Even the dynamic personality of Jay, as played expertly by Thomas Silcott, eventually becomes a part of the picture and not the whole show by himself. Silcott is tall, slender, dynamic and engaging. He has a smile that warms you at least five rows back in the compact theater at the Capital Rep. He has a voice that resonates in your head, bouncing off the walls. He gives Jay a miracle combination of strength, loving charm, heroism and an almost vigilant view of the world he inhabits. He plays the leading role, but he is never the "star" of the show. That honor belongs to the show itself, to the play, to the script as interpreted by this company. Silcott is the highpoint, but he is a team player in bringing the play to its pinnacle point.
Sandberg-Zakian establishes a rhythm for the play at the outset and she never lets the show's motivation out of her sights. On Lawrence E. Moten, III's open set the cast are the playwright's tools, providing an almost constant, hand-clapping insistence. It is almost music, almost dancing as they move through the scenes of the play aided and abetted by Adam Honore's lighting design.
"Make it official," is the motivation behind the fight of a man who is already the Black Champion, but in reality the motive here is earning something that has been withheld, the respect of a sister for a brother who has always been her champion but who has never fought for her. This company earns that respect royally and the Rep has a hit on its hands. If I could, I'd be ringside every night, cheering each and every character on with my last dying breath. That's how much I loved this play.
The Royale plays at the Capital Rep, 111 North Pearl Street in Albany, NY through October 14. For information and tickets go to capitalrep.org or call the box office at 518-445-7469.