The stage is small like a boxing ring and the overhead spotlights shine down, piercing the black air like a knife. So it all looks and feels like a boxing event.
But The Royale is a play about boxing in the same way that A Streetcar Named Desire is about urban public transportation. Written by Marco Ramirez and now at the Cleveland Play House as the featured offering of their current New Ground Theatre Festival, this poetic and thoroughly compelling work is a 90-minute gut punch you won't soon forget.
Based on the triumphant and tragic life of the African-American boxer Jack Johnson, this play's fictional Jay "The Sport" Jackson is the Negro boxing champion of the world. But that is far too small and claustrophobic a classification for the brash Jackson, who wants his name and photograph on front pages of newspapers at the turn of the 20th century.
Of course, at that time there were forces aligned against black men who wanted to be cultural heroes and icons. And Ramirez addresses those doubts and fears in ways that are stylized and theatrically intricate.
To begin with, there is no fighting in The Royale. When the play opens, Jackson is in the ring with his opponent, another black fighter nicknamed Fish (a feisty but eventually supportive Johnny Ramey), but they never face each other. Crouching in classic boxer's postures, the two men shift and feint while looking out at the crowd made up of the audience that envelops the small Outcalt Theatre stage. They may be fighting each other, but they are talking to us.
That conversation is punctuated by hand slaps, foot stomps and gasps that reflect the carnage going on inside the non-existent ropes. These scripted sounds are orchestrated with fine precision by director Robert Barry Fleming, turning that opening sequence into a percussive ballet that has all the sweaty realism of George Bellow's famous painting from the same era, "Stag at Sharkey's."
After that stirring opener, we learn more about Jackson's ambitions, including a dream bout with undefeated Bixby, the ex-champion apple farmer who is the esteemed avatar of "white superiority." As Jackson dreams, we learn about the dread those fantasies engender in his sister Nina, who has her own sad back story.
Taking on the Mickey Goldmill role from Rocky as the all-knowing trainer, Brian D. Coats as Jackson's corner man Wynton mesmerizes when describing his introduction to boxing at an event and venue called The Royale. That was the elegant name for a ghastly exhibition where he and six other young black men were blindfolded, tossed into a ring, and forced to swing wildly and fight each other until only one was left standing. It isn't until Wynton's blindfold was removed that he realized those pebbles he thought he was standing on were the teeth of his fellow competitors.
That story serves as a centerpiece for the play in more ways than one. While it shows how white society compelled those with African blood to destroy themselves, it also mocks the "celebrity" bestowed on black boxers at that time, since they were blocked from actually participating in the larger culture. After all, the ring ropes we're so familiar with can also be seen as prison bars, turned sideways.
The acting in The Royale is consistently fine, with Leo Marks wittily playing several small roles including a referee, a fight promoter and various reporters. And Nikkole Salter in the role of Nina adds a quiet tone of despair and approaching doom to the proceedings.
In the central role of Jackson, Preston Butler III exhibits remarkable intensity, but his character's more ego-driven side is muted which makes some of his scenes less effective. And the playwright's tendency to explain a bit too much at times becomes tiresome.
But as this outsider's quest for fame progresses the rumblings of tragedy increase, and some lines are repeated like omens ("Somewhere there's a hand on a knife..."). When Jackson finally attains his dreamt-of bout with Bixby, the culminating confrontation is as surprising and as impactful as what has gone before.
As good as The Royale is, and it's very good indeed, it's not entirely clear how it fits with the Cleveland Play House mission for the New Ground Theater Festival. The theater claims that these are new works "developed and presented" by CPH, but this script by Ramirez premiered in 2013 and has already played to positive reviews in backwater locales such as New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. In short, this isn't exactly a groundbreaking production "developed" by CPH.
Artistic director Laura Kepley justifiably deserves the accolades she has received for some of her decisions. But the New Ground event shouldn't promote itself as a genuine creator and promoter of new theater work while giving the festival's centerpiece position and longest production run to a boxing play that has already, um, made the rounds.