The boxers in the impressionistic ring set up by the actors at The Old Globe’s White Theatre never land a punch. In fact, they mostly face the audience, rather than each other, and the words they utter are stream-of-consciousness thoughts.
But they indicate by choreographed feints, grunts, finger snaps, stomps and moans that a match is going on.
Playwright Marco Ramirez takes early 20th-century boxer Jack Johnson (the first African-American world heavyweight champion, who held the title from 1908-1915) as inspiration for “The Royale,” playing through Nov. 2 at the Old Globe’s White Theatre. Rachel Chavkin directs; this is the play’s second production.
Here we find Jay “The Sport” Jackson (Robert Christopher Riley), the Negro champion, itching for a chance at the world title. Jay is cocky and verbal, and like Muhammad Ali 60 years later, has learned the art of playing to his crowd. Jay has taken on 18-year-old comer Fish (Okieriete Onaodowan) as sparring partner.
But Jay wants to play to that other, majority crowd, the one that puts up the real money and pays handsomely for the big win.
His trainer Wynton (Ray Anthony Thomas), much older and a former boxer himself, has been with Jay nine years and knows the way of the sports world. So does promoter/ring announcer Max (John Lavelle). But in a fit of impatience, Jay orders Max to set up a fight with the champ. Now.
Max returns with the unpalatable terms: the champion gets 90% of the take, win or lose. Against all advice, Jay accepts the terms. He wants the match that much.
But just as that historic fight is about to begin, the challenger who steps into the ring isn’t the champion, but a much more formidable opponent: Jay’s older sister Nina (Montego Glover), in her Sunday best, come to warn little brother of the problems a victory could create for him and the family in the Jim Crow world they inhabit (race riots did ensue from the Johnson fight).
“I know you’re ready to win,” she says. “You were ready to take over the world the day you were born. But look at the dogs you’re about to unleash. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Riley’s swagger plays well off Onaodowan’s eagerness and tentativeness. Lavelle (remembered for a terrific turn in “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” a few years back) has all the brashness and amazing lung power of a promoter and ringside announcer. Thomas exudes the competence of experience – and has a particularly moving scene describing a horrific racist practice that gives the play its name.
Glover (Tony-nominated for her turn in “Memphis,” which originated at La Jolla Playhouse) is affecting in the underwritten part of Nina.
The problem on opening night was the usual bugaboo when playing in the round: diction. Too often, words at the ends of sentences were lost, so much so that I needed to read the script to know what was said.
Along with fine acting all around, “The Royale” gets points for creative staging, excellent lighting (Austin R. Smith) and sound (Matt Hubbs) and for raising an interesting question: when personal ambition collides with family needs, how is that decision made? Unfortunately, here we know the answer before the show starts.
“Royale” plays through Nov. 2 at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park in San Diego, California.
Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.
Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or HERE.
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.