At The Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
The Royal, directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, this year’s season opener at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, is a fast paced work that doesn’t let up for a moment during its 80 minutes. Very loosely based on Jack Johnson’s fight against Jim Jeffries it is the story of Jay “The Sport” Jackson who is the first black man to challenge for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.
Jay Jackson is played by Thomas Silcott who brings us into the ring with and into the mind of the confident but conflicted challenger. Playwright Marco Ramirez has given him plenty to work with in this thought provoking play, and Silcott has an amazing presence on the stage. The dialogue is crisp and sharp like an action filled boxing contest. Ramirez not only gives us insight into what a fighter is thinking about while in the ring, but also deals with the wider implications of of having a black man win the white dominated championship in 1910.
This conflict is sharpened by a conversation Jackson has with his sister Nina played by Ramona Lisa Alexander. Nina warns Jackson that his victory could result in violence against blacks across the nation, and she suggests subtly that it may be better for everyone if he lost. She feels that things are moving too fast and questions if Jackson is putting his personal gain ahead of his people. It is an intense back and forth that has the power of a hard fought boxing match.
Mark W. Soucy plays the fast talking white promoter Max who also serves as reporter and commentator for the two boxing matches that take place in the play. His sharp dialog keeps the adrenaline flowing. As a ballyhooer he puts Don King to shame. You can feel the excitement build listening to him. He’s good.
George Bennett Watson as Wynton, Jackson’s trainer, and Toran White who plays Fish, Jackson’s opponent in the opening scene as well as his sparring partner for the big fight, are both excellent in their roles which are a bit lower octane but no less important. Wynton has been around the game for some time and seems a bit uncomfortable with the social implications of the fight. Fish is excited to be a part of such a great event but also is naive and is the character who elicits sympathy from the audience. Both actors are strong and very competent in their roles.
Lighting (Karen Perlow) and sound (David Remedios) are used very effectively. A scene where Jackson is hitting the heavy bag while his shadow is cast against the side and back of the stage is very powerful. Mr. Ramirez has said that he sees boxing as a percussive sport and incorporates a hip hop rhythm into the play. Something that works very well.
The fight scenes are different in that instead of having the boxers throw staged punches at each other they face the audience and punch towards them while also using the noise of stomping feet and claps to represent punches. It is a novel and very effective way to stage a fight and the accompanying dialog along with superb lighting allows us to step into the minds of the fighters.
The Royale is a boxing play but it is much more. In these heavily politicized times I am always fearful that a playwright will, as they too often do, preach to the audience about how it should think. Mr. Ramirez instead choses to leave us with questions. This is far more effective in helping bring us together to find common ground.
Whether or not you are a boxing fan, The Royale is a play that you should not miss.
Through October 8
The Merrimack Repertory Theatre