The Royale by Marco Ramirez
“Never took no pleasure fighting one colour over another . . . Long as they can climb in the ring, they comin’ out purple.”
This beautifully staged play, carefully scripted by Ramirez and dutifully delivered by director Madani Younis, is another boxing themed piece of theatre, like Cock & Bull Story, The Great White Way and Sucker Punch, that delivers a knockout.
Ramirez has focused on telling the story of one man’s courage, and personal ambition, to become the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Before Ali, and Tyson, there was Jay “ The Sport” Johnson.
Boxing is boxing, possibly the only sport black men of 1905 can afford to play yet for Johnson, played with balletic precision by Nicholas Pinnock, winning in the ring is likely to create a ripple effect leading to violence and death on the streets of America.
Johnson believes that what counts in life is good character, integrity, a sense of fairness and equality, and his consistent performance in the ring. The colour of his skin should be irrelevant. In racially segregated America of 1905, Johnson’s real life victory triggered race riots across the United States. A black man could enjoy the ring but not a win against a white man.
Johnson, like so many adrenaline pumped boxers, was amusingly arrogant and slightly confrontational towards his opponents. He destroyed his sparring partner in the opening scene, publicly humiliated him with his fast moves and trashy talk, but the play moves at such a rapid pace it never allows us to dwell for too long on any devastation Johnson’s actions created. The author saves that important reflection for the bittersweet end.
Johnson doesn’t mince his words, treats his white manager (Patrick Drury) with both respect and contempt, and is quick to highlight to his black trainer (Jude Akuwudike) that he’s being exploited. He recognizes that he needs both men to achieve his goals yet he can’t trust either one. We never discover who he does trust and the sudden appearance of his sister (Franc Ashman) silences Johnson even more. The family history is never fully explored. Just enough for us to know he is a role model to his nephews but we do learn he is respected by his family and the local community back home. His sister reminds him he has always been a fighter, a loner, and his decision to proceed isn’t surprising to her. She needs to see him before the big fight to be clear he knows that his actions will have negative repercussions for so many. Watching Johnson trying to punch his way free of his destiny as a black man in America is a powerful thing. Not that the actual punches being thrown in this play ever land on anyone. The are replaced by atmospheric, poignant moments of expressionism and physical theatre that always hit the right note. We see a boxer, a man ready to take on the world, and we don’t doubt his potential to floor any opponent for one moment.
Set entirely on an almost bare stage, a dusty boxing ring without ropes, Johnson punches the air with short, staccato sounds often accentuated by claps and stamps provided by the ensemble. But Johnson knows he isn’t just boxing. He’s fighting an America full of prejudice and hatred that has yet to free itself of these chains.
Colin Kirkpatrick, after seeing this performance, would surely respond with a standing ovation. On press night, only a small group of black women dared to do so amongst a remarkably white audience. It was a poignant end to a thought-provoking 90 minutes.
Reviewed by Stephen Henry
Bush Theatre at The Tabernacle 34-35 Powis Square,London,W11 2AY Box Office: 020 8743 5050 / bushtheatre.co.uk @bushtheatre – 3 – 26 November, 2016