I have never seen the movie “Great White Hope” and know only vaguely who Jack Johnson was, but even I recognized that Marco Ramirez’s “The Royale” is drawing Johnson for its source material, and that Johnson’s story has been told before. Nonetheless, the script struck me as moving, relevant, and original. Set in America Circa 1905, it concerns the story of an African American, Jay (Jerod Haynes), who is quickly becoming America’s preeminent boxer. He, his coach Wynton (Edwin Lee Gibson), and newly minted training partner, Fish (Julian Parker), are all black while his manager Max (Phillip Earl Johnson) is white, and at one when point a journalist asked Jay if he thinks his people have a natural propensity towards fighting, he refuses to take bait, and responds that “judging by the first three rows of the audience tonight, I’d say it’s your people who have a propensity for watching.”
While no other exchange in the play captures the ignorance, irrationality, and self-interest present in racism and racial social-structures quite as well as this one, the dialogue between the characters throughout the play shows similar wit and authenticity. It sounds refreshingly more like the barbs we trade with our friends and associates in our best moments than it does dialogue from the pen of a veteran writer of stage and screen, perhaps a nod to boxing: Jay and Fish become close friends through the sport. In fact, as the play makes clear in the horrifying narrative of Jay’s sister Nina (Mildred Marie Langford) when she appears late in the play, what goes on in the ring is nowhere near as dark as the racially motived acts of violence that are being perpetrated outside of it. This argument, the central claim of the play, is brought home with great effect in the play’s final fight scene (which it is best not to know too much about before attending the play) in which the two worlds collide when Max finally secures Jay a fight with the retired, white, heavy-weight champion.
Instead, he evokes both a ruthless opportunism, and even hints of a superficial entrepreneurial charm. Ultimately, he sees the world for what it is and decides to make use of it: probably a little too shrewd to be a racist himself but more than willing to use racism and Jay to turn a profit. Max’s costume (Christine Pascual): a pin stripe suit (gaudy relative to the functional and conservative garb of the other characters), and the plays intense and forceful blocking (director Jaime Castañeda), set against an extremely minimalist set and counterintuitively bright lighting by Brian Sidney Brembridge help bring all these interpersonal tensions out.
Marco Ramirez’s “The Royale” is playing at “The American Theater Company” located at 1909 W. Byron Street. It runs through March 29th with performances Fridays at 8 pm, Saturday’s at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm. The theatre is located a few blocks off the Irving Park Brown Line stop. Single Tickets range between $43 and $48, and can be purchased at the ATC Box officer at 773-409-4125 or at www.atcweb.org.
Parking can be difficult, but there are meters and even a metered lot within easy walking distance.
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