‘Royale’ intensely probes anguish of black boxer

Boxers Calvin M. Thompson (left) and Satchel (right) prepare to fight in “The Royale” as (from left) Donald E. Lacy Jr., Tim Kniffin and Atim Udoffia watch. Photo by David Allen.

“The Royale,” a barely veiled drama about the first black world’s heavyweight boxing champ, gave me much to like:

• Intense, powerful, top-drawer performances by each of the five members of the ensemble cast.

• Unique tribal, jazzy clapping, stomping, finger snapping and knee slapping in unison.

• Highly stylized, imaginative fight scenes choreographed jointly by director Darryl V. Jones and Joe Orrach with two boxers side by side so there’s no actual contact. Or gore.

• Superb guidance by Jones that makes almost every movement —from remarkably forceful to methodically slow — meaningful.

• Minimalist set and props that allowed me to pay attention to the actors without distraction.

• Unrelenting jabs at misperceptions and uncertainties stemming from Jim Crow racism in the early 20th century.

All that said, I still found the sporadically languid 90-minute one-act play at the Aurora Theatre lacking. No surprises. No knockout punch.

And, therefore, ultimately having — disappointingly — negligible impact on me.

The storyline stresses Jay Jackson’s mental anguish — his dilemma about whether to ignore both his hunger to win and his pride being a black star in a white world and, instead, throw the sold-out bout with the Caucasian champion to avoid a white backlash against African Americans.

As exemplified in the play by a gruesome allusion to a lynching.

The basic premise, of course, is borrowed from the real life of Jack Johnson, who became the target of supremacist bigots before and after he coaxed James L. Jeffries out of retirement and defeated him in the so-called “Fight of the Century” in 1910 Reno.

Calvin M. Thompson is outstanding as opponent-taunting Jackson (who revels in the conquest of white women and the wearing of white suits), and Satchel André is equally potent as his sparring partner, Fish.

Tim Kniffin, the lone white in the cast, shines as Max, “the only interracial fight promoter” in the game, while Donald E. Lacy Jr. is a fascinating combo of insubordinate and subservient as Wynton, Jackson’s trainer, and Atim Udoffia effectively doubles as Jackson’s sister, Nina, and, in a gender-bending moment, the white champ.

Poignancy is an integral part of the play written by Marco Ramirez, who’s created episodes of television’s “Orange Is the New Black” and “Sons of Anarchy.”

Especially in scenes in which Jackson describes his sister’s futile attempts to change herself into a white woman and blindfolded black fighters pulverizing each other so the last man standing can collect coins tossed by a cheering crowd of bloodthirsty whites.

Although neither Jackson nor “The Royale” conjure up the heroic stance of Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” nor the tragedy of Robert de Niro’s “Raging Bull,” the play can be appreciated on multiple levels.

Particularly by anyone unfamiliar with the prizefight world’s actual history or the race riots spurred by the championship battle.

Or by those looking for another reason to moan about today’s mushrooming racism.

“The Royale” runs at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, through Dec. 3. Night performances, 7 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $33-$65. Info: http://auroratheatre.org or (510) 843-4822.

Contact Woody Weingarten at at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →