What happens when one man’s personal quest turns out to be the struggle of an entire nation? Set in the early 1900s, “The Royale” is the story of Jay, played by David St. Louis, the African-American heavy weight champ. Not satisfied with his color-specific title, he tasks his promoter Max, played by Keith Szarabajka, to convince the reigning white heavy weight champ, Bixby, to come out of retirement and face him in the ring to determine once and for all who the world’s heavy weight champ really is. Despite the fact that no official boxing organization will acknowledge the outcome of the first interracial fight, and Bixby demands 90 percent of the purse win or lose – instead of the traditional 55 percent – Jay accepts the terms.
For Jay, this fight is a matter of principal and a matter of pride. He is the best in the world and he’s going to prove it regardless of the cost to himself. It is only after a news conference where a reporter reveals to him that four men were arrested and had guns confiscated while trying to enter the conference and then a visit from his sister, played by Diarra Oni Kilpatrick, reveals to him that his family is being threatened does Jay realize that this fight is much bigger than himself. Jay must then reconcile within himself his own vainglory to the consequences of his actions to the entire African-American populace who don’t have his resources to keep them safe from lynching.
The script by Marco Ramirez is exceptional. His handling of an intense and sensitive topic is brilliant. He carefully ramps up the stakes, throwing in just enough comedic one-liners to ease the tension, until the explosive end. The build is truly impressive and aided wonderfully by director Daniel Aukin. Aukin’s approach is stylized and presentational using movement and rhythm choreography by Ameenah Kaplan to explosive effect. The opening bout is mesmerizing utilizing the entire cast for sound effects and mood.
Running without an intermission, “The Royale” is a quick 90 minutes with one scene flowing smoothly into the next with seamless transitions thanks to Andrew Boyce’s utilitarian set design that gives just enough setting to place the action. The staging of the final bout is at first a little jarring and odd, but quickly proves to be not only effective but breathtakingly poignant. St. Louis’ journey from the cocky showboat prizefighter to the man with the weight and responsibility of the nation on his shoulders is something to behold. As the lights fade out, his demeanor and attitude are heart breaking.
The supporting cast around him is fantastic and all serve to create a perfect balance for this world. Szarabajka, the only white character in the play, does a great job of fighting for and protecting what Jay wants, while being the reminder of the insidious racism that abounds with comments like Bixby has nothing against black people, “his driver’s a negro.”
It is the reactions of St. Louis and Robert Gossett – as Wynton, Jay’s trainer – that reveals these seemingly “innocent” comments for what they truly are. Both Gossett and Kilpatrick serve as the harsh reminders for Jay that the rest of the African-American’s live a very different life than the sheltered privilege that he has attained for himself.
It is up to Desean Terry – as Fish, Jay’s sparring partner – to retain the hope and innocence of youth caught up in something bigger than him. A task that he handles exceptionally, adding some much needed light and excitement to an otherwise dark and heavy topic. Fish represents both the reason and the sacrifice for Jay’s battle.
“The Royale” takes an in-depth look at an over-arching social disease and personalizes it beautifully, making it accessible. Not easy, it is not an easy story to take in, but it is accessible. It is the story of a man that has the courage to stand alone in the ring, yet take on the responsibility and ramifications of an entire nation.
*Coverage provided for the Culver City News