Photo courtesy TheatreSquared
In the fourth (of six) rounds that are acted out onstage during “The Royale,” Jay Johnson’s protégé and sparring partner Fish gives the more accomplished boxer a gift.
It’s a phonograph player, a portable, fancy one for the boxer to use as he prepares for the biggest fight of his life. Johnson, the black heavyweight champion of the world, had been training to music in his home gym.
But away from the comforts of home and about to step into the unknown, Johnson needed a boost. He immediately got one, and he started dancing and singing. “The Royale” – onstage through Feb. 16 at TheatreSquared – is very much a play, but there’s a very real music to it. Not only does the cast sing along with the phonograph, but they clap and stomp their feet as a storytelling device. Much like boxing, there’s a choreography behind the hulking physiques and powerful fists. As Johnson and his trainer Wynton often discuss, the boxer is at his best if he’s giving his opponent “a little jazz,” another way to say a rhythmic if improvised sequence.
What: “The Royale”
When: 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday through Sunday and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Feb. 16
Where: TheatreSquared, 447 W. Spring St., Fayetteville
Cost: $26-$47; a limited number of $10 are available for those under 30 years old
Tickets: 479-777-7477 or theatre2.org
But Johnson’s fight is beyond the fist-filled one inside the ring. In fact, we don’t see him land an actual punch during the play. But he did land a hard-fought victory that led to additional wins for those who followed in his path.
The story is loosely based on what was called “The Fight of the Century.” This July 4, 1910, fight featured heavyweight Jack Johnson going up against the former heavyweight champion of the world, James Jeffries, who had retired years before instead of risking his title to Johnson via fight.
It doesn’t quite play out like that in “The Royale,” which was written by “Sons of Anarchy” and “Twilight Zone” writer Marco Ramirez. The play debuted in Los Angeles in 2013 and was first produced in New York City in 2016. Even if the names don’t align and the plot runs a little differently, the stories are roughly parallel. The former boxing champion named Bixby comes out of retirement to fight Jay Johnson, who is seeking the world heavyweight championship. Johnson, played in Fayetteville by Shon Middlebrooks, has everything we expect in a boxer – incredible musculature, tenacity and showmanship, too.
Reading historical accounts of the real-life Jack Johnson, it’s clear that he was the premiere boxer of his time. Objectively, an in-his-prime Johnson should have beat Jeffries, and he did.
But he was black, and in proving he was the best in the pre-Civil Rights era, he fought more than just inside the ring. He carried the weight of all black people on his shoulders. He’s reminded of this by his older sister, Nina, played by Na’Tosha De’Von. She comes to the fight to warn Johnson of the implications of a potential victory. Johnson has been thinking big picture. He knows a black man knocking out the white heavyweight champion would have a lasting impact on society and fuel empowerment. Nina’s focus is more immediate. She’s concerned about the riots that will no doubt ensue if Johnson puts Bixby on the canvas. She’s worried about the safety of her sons, who are the boxer’s beloved nephews and perhaps a target of those with bad intentions. She’s terrified about the men who will come chasing after Johnson if he wins, and her warning hits hard, considering Johnson has just learned men have been showing up to his fights with guns. They’d all been stopped by security before entering – so far. This play is about unnecessary violence, and I don’t mean as a way to reframe a boxing match.
Photo courtesy TheatreSquared
In “The Royale,” Johnson doesn’t fight Bixby. He fights racial injustice, and the equality fight yet to come. The boxing scenes feature boxers throwing jabs, crosses and switching their feet, like they might in a ring. But instead of mocking up those punches on a stage – where one that falls short would be unconvincing, or one that lands true would risk injury to an actor – the thud of fist on face is replaced with the stomping of feet. Max, a white man who serves as Johnson’s promoter/agent/hype man/ring announcer, retreats to the corner to call out the action. His repeated call of “wow” misses the mark sometimes. There’s a real artistry to sports announcing that we don’t get to explore because it’s the same word over and over. But, again, the rhythm and repetition of this show matters.
The action takes place over six rounds, which provides short breaks between dialogue. There is no intermission in this play, which has a runtime of about 90 minutes. It is staged on a beautiful and smartly designed boxing ring, and there’s a surprising set reveal for the sixth round that’s worth letting you discover for yourself.
We know that progress to fight our societal injustices is made slowly, and with much sweat exhausted in the process. We’re nearly 110 years removed from “The Fight of the Century,” and we’re long past the whites-only hotels mentioned in the play. But there are still institutionalized harms that need to be struck down. Someone just has to be strong enough to keep fighting, and that’s tough when you’ve already been punched in the face. This is Johnson’s fight, and perhaps ours too.