“The Royale: A Play in Six Rounds” at ACT, is about boxer Jay Jackson (played by Jarrod M.Smith), a character based on Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Ameenah Kaplan directs.
Biff! Bam! Ding!
From “The Champ ” to the “Rocky” franchise to the oozing new movie releases “The Bleeder” and “Bleed for This,” America has a long tradition of boxing dramas, in which bare-chested gladiators step into the ring to punch their way to fortune, ruin or both.
In certain respects, Marco Ramirez’s rewarding “The Royale: A Play in Six Rounds” pays homage to this hardy genre with some very familiar tropes. There’s an up-from-poverty fighter striving to become a world champ. By his side is a crusty veteran coach and a promoter eager to cash in. The story culminates with the ritual, tension-packed match for a superstar title: heavyweight champion of the world.
‘The Royale: A Play in Six Rounds’
by Marco Ramirez. Through Oct. 9, ACT, 700 Union St., Seattle; $20-$68 (acttheatre.org).
But as staged with the force and speed of a powerhouse right hook, “The Royale” is atypical in several respects. Instead of faked punches, landed blows are indicated by foot stomps. The production moves at times to a stirring tattoo of choral clapping, started by the cast and taken up by the audience.
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Also, while the character Jay Jackson is based on legendary boxer Jack Johnson (who became the first black heavyweight world champ, in 1908), the play transcends autobiographical melodrama to register the Richter-scale impact of the breakthrough on a nation still deeply mired in racial inequality.
This is accomplished in six “rounds” and 90 swiftly moving minutes, on a single boxing-ring set, by a laudable ensemble led by Jarrod M. Smith, who delivers a winning charismatic performance as the lead.
A precursor to the late Muhammad Ali in his heyday, Jackson is a gladiator and a showman. We see, in a fight with a terrified young boxer (Fish, well-played by the equally buff Lorenzo Roberts), how he cleverly taunts and psychs out his opponents, and entertains a (mostly white) crowd, how his fleet footwork and strategic jabs lead to victories.
Jackson is at the top of his game, and he’s hungry. Proud and defiant, he’s determined to break the color barrier in this populist sport. Promoter Max (R. Hamilton Wright) finally relents to his demands, and woos the current (white) world champ out of retirement for a title match.
A national celebrity, Jackson has been cagey about revealing his impoverished, Deep South background. But while he prepares for the bout with new sparring partner Fish, his sister Nina (Zenobia Taylor) appears – in the flesh, perhaps, but definitely as a symbolic spirit.
She’s an oracle of sorts, warning of the racial backlash and violence Jackson’s triumph could trigger in a country barely a generation away from slavery.
The fears of Jackson’s coach Wynton (G. Valmont Thomas) also seep in, when he recalls the barbaric matches of his youth. The Royale, as described by Wynton, was a kind of bare-knuckled, back- alley punch-up where black men bashed each other senseless for the entertainment of Southern whites.
With nimble choreography crisply executed by Smith and Roberts, and piercing lighting effects by Ben Zamora, director Ameenah Kaplan’s fight sequences are exciting without resorting to fake bloodshed.
The script’s more rhetorical dialogue isn’t so limber. And seated in the round, it’s hard to catch every line. (Taylor also needs to articulate more clearly.) A radio broadcast of the ultimate match is a glaring anachronism: The play is set in 1905 and the first prize- fight broadcast was in 1920.
But these are quibbles. Ultimately “The Royale” is a knockout that leaves you reeling at the hefty cost of racial progress.