‘Royale’ intensely probes anguish of black boxer
“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.